Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews



Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW. By August Meier and Elliott Rud-

wick. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. xii + 289p.; notes,

illustrations, bibliographical essay, index. $15.00.)


The gulf of suspicion and hostility between the black community and

labor that derived from the AFL craft union's systematic exclusion of blacks

and occasional black strikebreaking was wider in Detroit than elsewhere in

the industrial north in the 1930s. In Detroit Henry Ford had furthered the

gulf by his unique policy of hiring large numbers of blacks at all levels in

his Dearborn plant and by cultivating a close relationship with leading

black ministers and politicians, several of whom served as Ford employ-

ment agents. With the emergence of the UAW in 1936 as an industrial

union determined to organize all industrial workers and a leftwing lead-

ership committed to racial equality, a black and labor alliance gradually

developed in Detroit. The transformation of Detroit blacks from pro-

industry to pro-union was both dramatic and ironic because the turning

point occurred during the Ford strike of 1941. The mutual support of Detroit

blacks and the UAW during the Ford strike developed into a fast alliance on

behalf of black advancement and integration during World War II. August

Meier and Elliott Rudwick have thoroughly researched the archives of

black organizations, the UAW, and federal agencies and have made exten-

sive use of the Negro press and oral histories to construct a fresh and

engrossing story of this transformation of black and labor relations.

In several respects, Meier and Rudwick propose revisions of the tradition-

al understanding of black and labor relations in the auto industry. For

instance, the authors show that NAACP Secretary Walter White's memoirs

portray the relations between the NAACP and the UAW at the time of the

1941 Ford strike as more amicable and trusting than was actually the case.

Meier and Rudwick also show that in spite of the UAW's strong rhetorical

commitment to racial equality, the union's actual progress in integrating

the workplace, securing equality clauses in collective bargaining agree-

ments, and electing blacks to union office was highly uneven and generally

disappointing. Several of Meier and Rudwick's other interpretations are

less enlightening than these.

Meier and Rudwick dispute the view that Henry Ford hired large num-

bers of black workers to divide the workforce and discourage unionism.

Rather, the authors suggest, Ford's policy toward blacks stemmed from "a

genuine philanthropic impulse." Though it was quite true, as the authors

point out, that Ford's benevolence extended to other disadvantaged groups

besides blacks and extended beyond his employment policy to support for

the research of George Washington Carver and to underwritng the rehabil-

itation of the black community of Inkster, the element of self-interest in

Ford's benevolence was greater than Meier and Rudwick admit. Ford be-

friended ex-convicts who manned the fearsome Service Department. He

befriended unemployed youths whom he hired to replace men working at

higher wages. Ford befriended the black community, and in return he got a