Today in Detroit history: Fighting 'runaway plants' in the age of industrial decentralization



An important but little-marked anniversary in Detroit history takes place today: Sixty-three years ago, workers at the Ford Motor Company's Local 600, at the Rouge Plant, rallied in support of a lawsuit challenging the company's right to move production from Detroit. As described in Thomas J. Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Sugrue chronicled how, on "November 12, 1951, Rouge workers held a mass meeting to persuade the UAW International office to support" a lawsuit challenging "the prevailing assumption that companies owed nothing to the towns and cities whose viability depended on them." A legal complaint read, "The economic life, the growth and the development of this Greater Detroit area has been and is dependent in substantial measure upon the continuation of the high level of production activities of the Rouge Plant and the affording of continued and substantial employment to the plaintiffs."

The UAW's legal scholars were intrigued by the arguments, but knew they wouldn't fly in court. Within three months of the rally, the UAW International stepped in and took Local 600 into trusteeship, partly to root out suspected Communists, in step with the red-baiting of the McCarthy era. The suit was not pursued and the company began disassembling the most vertically integrated complex in history at that time.

When you look back on what "decentralization" did to Detroit, the metropolitan region, and, in the era of offshoring and global capital, the United States, the struggle by Local 600 to challenge Ford was absolutely prescient. Detroit's industrial giants began to move plants from the city, where unions had been organized at great cost, to more remote regions where union organizing didn't have a foothold yet.

To read more about this struggle, and what the fight over decentralization was all about, see this piece from Kelli B. Kavanaugh, published in Metro Times 11 years ago: "They Tried to Warn Us."

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