BY BRIAN MCMAHON
Excerpt from The Ford Century in Minnesota
Ascent of the Autoworkers
The Postwar Boom and Challenges
When [World War II] ended, there were about twenty-five million cars on the road, and most were more than ten years old. People wanted new cars and Ford was eager to meet the pent-up demand. Several hundred workers, including many returning veterans, were brought back to the St. Paul plant during the summer of 1945 to start the plant’s conversion from military to civilian production. Ford shipped three hundred new 1946 model cars from Michigan to the Twin Cities to showcase its new lineup. After the new production equipment was installed, the new vehicles rolled off the assembly line, starting with school-bus chassis, followed by trucks and cars. The glass plant started up on July 6, 1945.
Soldiers, many without jobs or permanent housing, returned home to families they had not seen in years. Under federal law, veterans could return to their jobs at the Ford plant and keep their union seniority, receiving credit for their years in the military. Some of the women who had been working at the plant wanted to stay but did not have the same protections. There were only 1,800 job openings at the plant, down from the three thousand during the war. During the war, women were viewed as important contributions, portrayed as Rosie the Riveters, but demobilization abruptly changed this perception. Now they were seen as competitors to men for jobs in an uncertain labor market. According to polls taken at the time, most women wanted to continue working, but there was enormous pressure for them to return home. “All of a sudden, in every medium of popular culture,” wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin, “women were barraged with propaganda on the virtues of domesticity.”
During difficult economic times, there was resistance to women working. During the Depression, a number of states passed laws prohibiting married women from working if their husband had a job. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) had little interest in expanding employment opportunities for women, and on more than one occasion opposed women’s participation. During the war, the government instituted protections for women, including equal pay for equal work. This sentiment, however, was not widely shared by autoworkers. Recognizing the problem, UAW president Walter Reuther said, “Industry must not be allowed to settle the labor problem by chaining women to kitchen sinks.” Maury Maverick, a federal official at the Smaller War Plants Corporation, said, “Women have learned too much to go back . . . [they] will either be out hooting it up or doing something constructive so we have to be doing something to make it so they can work.”
Most women at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant left voluntarily, but not Verna Welsch, who lost her husband in a car crash a month before their son was born. For her, the well-paying Ford job was a necessity. She was assigned a variety of difficult jobs after the war, which she believed were intended to force her to quit. In one incident she believed her rib was broken by a not-so-friendly bear hug from another male worker. She remembered one particularly difficult day, where “they put me down on body build washing floor pans. I had to get all the wax off so that the paint would stick and jiggle them apart and turn them over. It was hard.” In another instance she was assigned to cleaning parts with chemical solvents that her coworker across the line splashed on her, causing an allergic rash. One day the men in the department were watching her closely, but they abruptly left, perplexing Verna. She assumed it was because they didn’t want women workers, but when the men returned, one said, “That’s not it at all. We went up and put our money down on a bet to see how long you would stay.” Verna responded: “Seeing you were so nice to come and talk to me, I hope you put the largest amount because I’m going to stay here till they carry me out on a stretcher!” In 1946, Verna and a number of women were assigned to the instrument panel line, which was similar to their wartime work on the Pratt & Whitney engines.
Years later, Al Hendricks, a union official in both St. Paul and the International UAW in Detroit, acknowledged that “both the union and management made it so a lot of them quit, the way the guys treated them and the mentality that they were taking men’s jobs that come out of service.” When car production resumed, Hendricks encouraged women to apply for better jobs as they opened up. “Verna Welsch was a very bright woman. I told her, ‘There’s a stock status job open . . . Put your name in for it.'” Verna declined, believing she had little chance for the job, but Hendricks put her name in anyway. She came out on top in the test score and worked in that position until she retired in 1974. In 1957, the St. Paul Pioneer Press profiled the four remaining “Rosie, the Riveters.” One who “stuck it out” said she received a good wage but the challenges she faced were very real, as the article stated: “They are vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts, some 450 to one . . . The present assembly line is not geared for employment of women, except in the jobs these four do.”
During the war, women made enormous contributions working in factories. Those with families were able to place their children in nursery schools and day-care centers that had been set up with federal funding. After the war, Minneapolis mayor Hubert H. Humphrey lobbied to keep these programs in place until all veterans had returned and found employment. He also pushed to have the government fund housing programs to address the serious shortage.
Brian McMahon is author of The Ford Century in Minnesota. A trained architect, he has lectured and written extensively on industry, urban history, and architecture.
“The Ford Century in Minnesota tells the story of how Henry Ford’s pioneering company arrived in the state and built its giant plant in St. Paul in the 1920s, how its workers became involved in the international organized labor movement, and how a variety of forces led to the plant’s closure. Combining political, economic, social, and architectural history, this richly detailed, handsomely illustrated book will appeal to a wide range of readers.”
—Larry Millett, author of Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury
“A substantial literary gift.”
—St. Paul Pioneer Press