The legendary folk singer Pete Seeger performed and helped write the classic union organizing song “Talking Union” for men and women just like Ken Morris of Detroit. Seeger who died recently understood the hazards, the glories and frustrating paths followed by union organizers and his song was almost a primer for local organizers.
United Auto Worker (UAW) leader Ken Morris pretty much followed the song’s advice and the lyrics “they’ll raid your meeting hit you on the head” were almost prophetic for Morris who died in 2008. The elder Morris’ personal 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 one worker, Ken Morris, who rose through the union ranks at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit to become the President of Local 212 for seven years beginning in the late 1940s before being elected co-director of UAW Region 1 in 1955, a position he held for 28 years until his retirement. Region 1 was considered one of the largest and most influential UAW Regions in the country since it encompassed Detroit.
In his book, which was impeccably researched using the resources of the Walter Reuther Library in Detroit, the younger Morris also tells the story of how his father became very involved in Democratic Party politics which for the longest time was intertwined with the UAW.
Using stories his father told him and his brother older Greg growing up, Bob Morris is able to show how one man working for labor unity and equality could make a difference in the lives of everyday workers. Since the elder Morris would work from sunrise to sunset six days a week Bob and Greg’s mother insisted he spend time with them on Sunday so they would accompany their father on his day “off” to UAW meetings and political gatherings where as young boys were able to take in the operations of the union and its political ties. Along the way they would meet and or hear men like the Brothers Reuther (Walter, Roy and Vic), Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Martin Luther King and G. Mennen Williams and would hear stories about the early days of UAW organizing.
One story they didn’t hear much about was the day their father was beaten for his union activities by gangsters who were nothing more than hired corporate thugs in the tradition of Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s anti-union enforcer at Ford Motor Company who sent hired thugs to intimidate and beat up labor leaders.
“As little kids you pick up things, but he never told Greg and I what happened,” Bob Morris said.
What happened is a vicious attack with a pipe or iron bar that left the elder Morris fighting for his life with two skull fractures, a broken wrist, arm and nose. It would take a long painful recovery. Morris’ beating was the fifth attack on Briggs union members in little over a year in 1946 and the 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. If anyone is doubt the commitment of the early leaders of the UAW this photo, shot on-the-sly by a newspaper photographer provides ample proof of the brutality waged against unions.
Shortly after the attack on Morris, Walter Reuther was the victim of an attempted assassination which left him wounded. A year later Walter Reuther’s brother, Victor, was also targeted for an assassination and was seriously wounded by a shotgun blast but recovered. Watch Reuther speaking at the Martin Luther King march on Washington.
Bob Morris said he spent a “year of his life” at the Walter Reuther Library researching details for the book.
“It is a gift to researchers,” he said.
After doing his research he would visit his father who at that time was in an extended care facility.
“I think he was pleased,” he said.
Morris like many of us didn’t really know much about his father‘s early life and that six oral histories his father completed before his death along with his high school yearbooks helped provide him insight into who his father was as a young man.
“He was very active in everything at school and the inscriptions (in the yearbooks) helped form who he was,” he said.
One thing that Bob Morris learned, but not until he was in his forties, was his father had changed his name from Katz to Morris.
“He was not a religious guy and we had no idea he had a Jewish background,” Bob Morris said.
While still in his twenties Ken Morris had moved from Pittsburg to Detroit looking for work as door-to-door salesman. He soon found that a Wasp name resulted in more sales and he changed his name without ever looking back.
While researching the book Bob Morris found the extensive report issued by the Kefauver crime fighting committee fascinating reading material that helped put the era in perspective.
Few, today except Labor historians remember Kefauver, but In 1951 Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee held hearings in 14 major U.S. cities including Detroit in order 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 some related to Harry Bennett and also 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 since the Judge had become convinced he would be “safer” in Florida.
The Grand Jury investigation had 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 and Morris said if you watch those hearings closely they look like a scene from the gangster movie “On the Waterfront.”
The Kefauver findings would turn up the heat on the investigations of the attempted killings of the Reuthers, but as Bob Morris points out in the book the UAW through its involvement in paying a key witness muddied the investigation.
At the end of the book Bob Morris gives some details on his father’s efforts to build a progressive Democratic Party in Michigan and how he became an expert on unemployment compensation. One young politician who Morris supported was Jim Blanchard who went on to become a congressman and governor of Michigan. Both of the Morris sons later worked for Blanchard.
Bob 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 on Labor Day.
Bob Morris, 62, works for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), and lives in Canton.
Morris will discuss his book at a meeting of the Michigan Political History Society, 5:30 p.m., Tuesday February 11, AFL-CIO headquarters 419 S. Washington Square, Lansing MI. Please RSVP: or (517) 333-7996. Admission is free.