On this day in 1961, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union goes on strike at Ford plants across the country to win higher wages and better benefits for its members. It was the first company-wide strike since Ford had agreed to a collective-bargaining deal in 1941. Ford had been the last of the Big Three automakers to recognize the union, and it did so grudgingly; the UAW would organize his workers, Henry Ford famously declared, “over my dead body.”
The 120,000 workers at 88 Ford plants in 26 states who walked out on October 3 were not striking over the economic terms of their contract. Workers at GM had gone on strike the month before, winning substantial wage and benefit improvements and Ford officials knew they had to provide a comparable package or risk losing their workers to the competition. (Even so, UAW leader Walter Reuther told The New York Times, the company was stingy with its concessions, parceling them out “with an eyedropper—a little here and a little there.”) Union and company representatives had hashed out an agreement on things like pay and pensions the night before the October 3 strike deadline. Ford agreed to pay increases of 7 cents an hour (the average autoworker earned $2.85 an hour) and pension increases for each year of service; cost-of-living allowances; fully funded health insurance; supplementary unemployment benefits; and new short–work-week benefits that paid 65 percent of a worker’s regular pay for every hour under 40 that he did not work.
What the negotiators had not been able to work out were the non-economic issues: production standards, the speed of moving assembly lines, the number of Ford-paid union staffers in every plant and a company proposal to “red circle” the wage rates of 3,000 steelworkers at its River Rouge factory in Dearborn, Michigan. (This meant that the pay of current workers would remain high but that subsequently hired workers in the division would earn significantly less; this, Ford argued, would help it compete with non-union steelmakers who paid lower wages.)
On October 11, a little more than a week after the strike began, Ford and the UAW reached a national accord, but 25 of the local bargaining units vowed to keep up their strike until they could reach agreements regarding conditions and rules at individual plants. (These included parking lots, cafeteria facilities, washup time, protocol for job postings, seniority policies and overtime rotation.) One by one, those locals signed contracts and returned to work. By October 19, only one Ford plant was still striking: a stamping plant in Walton Hills, Ohio, that made fenders and side panels for almost every car in the Ford lineup. On October 20, Ford and the Walton Hills local reached a settlement, and work returned to normal.