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Wednesday, February 5,2014

State of the union

Labor leader’s son recounts the early days of the UAW in new memoir

by Bill Castanier
Iconic folk singer Pete Seeger, who died last week, performed and helped write the classic union organizing song “Talking Union” for people like late United Auto Workers leader Ken Morris.

Seeger understood the hazards, the glories and frustrating paths followed by union organizers. His song was almost a primer for their mission.

That song’s lyrics “They’ll raid your meeting, hit you on the head” were prophetic for Morris, who died in 2008. His story is told by his son, Bob Morris, in the new book “Built in Detroit: A Story of the UAW, a Company, and a Gangster.”

The book tells the dramatic history of the formation of the UAW through the eyes of Morris, who rose through the union ranks at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit to become the president of Local 212. He held that seat for seven years, beginning in the late 1940s, before being elected codirector of UAW Region 1 in 1955, a post he held for 28 years until his retirement. Region 1, which encompassed Detroit, was one of the largest and most influential UAW regions in the country.

Using stories his father told him and his brother older Greg growing up, Morris, 62, shows how his father’s work for labor unity and equality made a difference in the lives of workers. Morris and his brother used to accompany their father on Sundays, his one day “off,” to UAW meetings and political gatherings. Along the way they would meet men like Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey and Martin Luther King Jr.

One story they didn’t hear much about was the day in 1946 their father was beaten for his union activities by hired corporate thugs, a vicious attack with a pipe or iron bar that left Ken Morris fighting for his life with two skull fractures, a broken wrist, arm and nose.

“As little kids you pick up things, but he never told Greg and I what happened,” Bob Morris said.

It would take a long painful recovery.

Morris’ beating was the fifth attack on Briggs union members in little over a year. Detroit newspapers began referring to the attacks as “The Terror.”

One particular grisly photo shows the grievously wounded Ken Morris in a hospital bed, his head swollen beyond recognition, ample proof of the brutality waged against unions. Shortly after the attack on Morris, Walter Reuther was the victim of an attempted assassination. A year later Reuther’s brother Victor was seriously wounded by a shotgun blast.

Bob Morris spent a year at the Walter Reuther Library researching details for the book and poring over the six oral histories his father had made. After doing his research, Morris would visit his father and tell him about his project.

“I think he was pleased,” he said. While researching the book, Morris found the extensive report issued by the Kefauver crime-fighting committee. In 1951, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver held hearings in 14 major U.S. cities, including Detroit, to ferret out the connections he believed existed between organized crime and business. Among other things, the committee wanted to explore the relationship to gambling in auto plants and the violence that had been perpetuated on labor leaders.

What the committee didn’t know at the time the hearings were scheduled was that a grand jury had investigated the Briggs beatings, but nothing had come from those investigations. The judge in that case became convinced he would be safer in Florida.

The grand jury investigation turned up connections between organized crime and Briggs and how organized crime had cut lucrative deals with Briggs and other companies in exchange for keeping “industrial peace” a euphemism for eliminating labor unions. In Detroit, the hearings were televised live. Morris said if you watch those hearings closely, they look like a scene from the movie “On the Waterfront.”

The Kefauver findings would turn up the heat on the investigations of the attempted killings of the Reuthers, but as Morris points out, the UAW muddied the investigation through its involvement in paying a key witness.

At the end of the book, Morris gives some details of his father’s efforts to build a progressive Democratic Party in Michigan and how he became an expert on unemployment compensation. One young politician whom Morris supported was Jim Blanchard, who became a congressman and governor of Michigan. Both of the Morris sons later worked for Blanchard.

Morris saved one of what he calls “his father’s proudest moments” for last: a photograph of Ken Morris introducing presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960. Naturally, it was on Labor Day.

Bob Morris

Michigan Political History Society discussion 5:30 p.m., Tuesday Feb. 11 FREE AFL-CIO Headquarters 419 S. Washington Square, Lansing RSVP at mipoliticalhistory@ gmail.com or (517) 333-7996

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