Local 249 — 84 Years Ago This Month


By Pat Hayes

“After the smoke cleared, it was a bloody mess,” Gene Minshall said of the epic battle of Ford Park. Minshall, then a 28-year-old Local 249 leader in the Trim Department at the Ford Motor Winchester Ave. plant, was on the front line that cold December day. The memory of the pitched labor battles that erupted on the streets of depression-era Kansas City remained vivid more than 35 years later. He told the story again for a new generation of autoworkers in an oral history first published in the Local 249 News in 1973.

Prevented from picketing the plant, but determined to stop the strikebreakers from reaching it, the union planned an all-out effort to halt production on Dec. 17, 1937. As the day dawned and the union men began to assemble in Ford Park across the street from the Ford Motor Winchester Ave. plant, it quickly became clear that the police had been tipped off to the union’s plan. More police than usual were massed in front of the plant and many more police cars rode shotgun on the caravans that transported strikebreakers past the union lines into the plant.

The first skirmishes in the battle started in the early morning hours as union men armed with slingshots, bricks and ball bats fanned out along the routes strikebreakers would take to the plant. Their goal was to stop two large car caravans filled with strikebreakers from reaching their destination. The caravans were formed at many points in Jackson County and converged into two large convoys: one at Blue Ridge and Van Horn, now Truman Road, the other at 22nd and Van Brunt on the city’s east side. Despite a heroic effort to stop them, the caravans got through. As the strikebreakers approached to within three blocks of  the plant, the police suddenly rushed to erect barricades on the streets in front of the plant to keep the UAW members back.

“Hundreds of union men were massing in Ford Park across from the plant,” Minshall recollected. And as the strikebreakers neared the plant, “the union men made a mad rush toward the caravan and started to turn cars over.”

The police waded into the melee in front of the plant gates using their riot sticks, threatening strikers with riot guns and throwing tear gas. The intensity of the police counterattack eventually forced strikers to retreat across the street where they picked up hot tear gas canisters and lobbed them back at the police who fired them.

“There was also lots of action taking place at 12th and Winchester,” according to Minshall. “There were many fights between the union men and the strikebreakers and police, some of the policemen got the hell beat out of them, many shots were fired.”

In all, five men were wounded by gunfire and many more were beaten during the Battle of Ford Park. One man was severely injured by a teargas canister that exploded in his hands. According to the Kansas City Star, the fighting “extended over the Northeast and intercity districts and even into rural Jackson County.” Mass arrests, mainly of UAW members, filled the cells at the Sheffield police station and the Jackson County jail.

The union was fighting Henry Ford, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. They were also up against Ford’s ruthless lieutenant, Harry Bennett. As head of the notorious Ford Service department, Bennett sent armed thugs to Kansas City to terrorize the strikers and their families. The business community in Kansas City united against the UAW. They used their influence with City Manager H.F. McElroy who kept a promise he personally delivered to Henry Ford in Detroit. The police would end their policy of enforcing the law impartially to side with Ford and actively break the strike. The union was denied the constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble on public streets to picket in front of the plant. Even the strikers’ wives and children were arrested when they attempted to peacefully picket the plant.

Despite their heroic effort, the union men could not prevail against the combined might of the forces arrayed against them. Still they fought on.

As the strikebreakers left the plant after work that day, Minshall was among a group of UAW men assigned to stop a Ford-organized caravan of some 200 vehicles at Van Horn and Blue Ridge Blvd. Driving a green sedan, Minshall, Steve Schmidt, Charles O’Connor and brothers Glenn and Richard Cathey crowded the lead car of the convoy to the side of the road bringing the whole line of cars to a stop not far from the Stone Arch Bridge. With the caravan stopped, 80 to 100 of the Ford strikebreakers leapt from their vehicles and began beating the union men with clubs and blackjacks.

In the free-for-all that ensued, Don Mustain, a chief deputy constable from Blue Township who was escorting the caravan, was struck in the legs and  right thigh by shotgun pellets. Robert Scott, a deputy constable, was hit in each leg. A bystander, Russell Williams, was wounded in the right leg, neck and left hand as he watched the skirmish unfold from across the street, according to the Kansas City Star.

Minshall and his comrades were accused of firing the shots that wounded the constables and bystander, but it is more likely that the shotgun pellets that hit the three menere actually indiscriminant shots fired at the union men by the strikebreakers riding in the heavily armed caravan. Despite contradictory and self-interested testimony from the constables and others, the preponderance of evidence suggests the constables were hit by friendly fire from the very caravan they were escorting from the plant. One of the union men with in the green sedan with Minshall, Steve Schmidt, told the Kansas City Star their side of the story.

“As we were passing a sedan with cream wheels, one of the men pulled a gun on us and shot at us. We went to the head of the caravan to head it off. The men in the cars came after us and started beating us.”

As the Battle of Ford Park drew to a close that day, Minshall found himself in jail with hundreds of other UAW members. He was charged with riotous assemblage. The strikebreakers, of course, were not charged. Two days later, on Dec. 20, anarsenal of 14 pistols, 12 shotguns and 57 miscellaneous weapons were seized by the sheriff from strikebreakers riding in the Ford-organized caravans, giving added weight to the union charge that it was strikebreakers themselves who were doing the shooting.

“The battles of the caravans were lost but left the union men on strike more determined than ever to continue the long hard fight for their just rights,” Minshall remembered. “It was evident that the union could not match the power of the Ford Motor Company factory service men, the company’s imported thugs, the city and county police force.”

As the strike dragged on past Christmas, the UAW put its faith in the Federal Government filing a unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Within days of the Battle of Ford Park, Homer Martin, then UAW president, traveled from Detroit to Kansas City to announce the union would charge Ford with violations of the Wagner Act. The Act, passed into law in 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, gave American workers the right to organize and the right to strike for the first time.

The Battle of Ford Park was lost, but the war to organize Ford would continue on the streets and in the courts for another four long years.