Notes from interview with John A. (Jack) Neitz July 7, 1999
Meeting at Pete Koegel’s House, St. Paul (Pete joined in the interview. There is also a transcribed full length interview of Pete from an earlier date.)
By Brian McMahon
Jack is a staunch supporter of the labor movement, and was a charter trustee of the UAW Local 879, which was founded on June 21, 1941. He is the last surviving signatory. He currently lives with his daughter in Chicago, but occasionally returns to visit his home in Underwood, Minnesota.
In 1929, when Jack Neitz applied for work at the Twin Cities Assembly plant, Ford had a policy of only hiring married men over the age of 21. Jack was 18 or 19 years old at the time, and was single, but after fighting his way through the crowd of a hundred people, he “lied to get a job.” It was a commonly held belief that Ford preferred married men because they would have a more committed attitude towards work, and be less likely to engage in union activities. Jack recalls his first task was to put distributor caps on the Model A. One of his toughest jobs was installing the electric wiring under the dash board. Lighting was bad and the workers had to lay on their back on the moving assembly line, and sort out and install the different colored wires. He also worked briefly in the glass department, loading the heavy glass panels onto the trucks.
Jack, a St. Paul native, dropped out of school after the seventh grade, and was driving a grocery truck before he started at Ford. While working, he continued his education at the St. Paul Vocational School, where he learned how to repair automobiles. Over his forty two year career at Ford, he also taught welding by the company during World War II, and worked on the production of tanks (where he sometime burned up hos clothers). Later, on his own time, he studies the pipefitting trade, and ended up with a job as a skilled worker in the maintenance department, repairing pumps.
During the Depression, the plant was shut down for several years. Jack found a jobb at the Armour Packing Plant in South St. Paul. The hiring manager was a boxing fan and had seen Jack fight, and gave him a job. Jack boxed “to make a few bucks” and had a very succesful professional career. He was never knocked out, and he went on to become the Minnesota welter weight champion. As his friend Pete Koegel put it, “Jack never took shit from anyone.” He continued his boxing, after he returned to work at Ford, and occasionally worked as a buncer, He knew Ramsey County Sheriff Gibbons and was offered a job by him.
Prior to the union, Ford was a difficult place to work. Employees were frequently dismissed, often without just cause. If workers couldn’t keep up with the pace of the assembly line, or if they “screwed up a part,” that usually meant termination. There were frequent “line speedups,” and pressure from the “diggers,” the time-study efficiency engineers. In addition, there was widespread favoritism; if foremen wanted to find work for a relative or friend, they would arbitrarily fire someone. In addition, and sign of pro-union activity was a very risky behavior, as there were company “stool pigeons, or spies” eager to report to the company officials. But the pay at Ford was very good–often twice the salary of other jobs–and there was usually a long line of applicants hanging around. Most workers “were scared” and did not want to risk their jobs. Jack Neitz was different. “I was nervous, but I was young and single, I supported the union all the time.”
While most organizing efforts were focused on a national level in Detroit, there was local activity as well. Meetings would often take place after work, at a variety of locations, ranging from a bar across the street from the plant (since torn down), to a storefront on Randolph Avenue, to various apartments, to public parks such as Minnehaha Park, and the CIO office on Harmon Place in Minneapolis. If workers were spotted at these meetings they could be fired without explanation. “Everybody was scared. There were a lot of Judas’s.” Speakers would sometimes include International representatives from Detroit. Jack recalls, after the Union came in, that Walter Reuther visited the Local two or three times.
In his final years at Ford, Jack worked for the Union, Local 879, full-time, and retired in 1972. After thirty-five years, he received a Ford wrist watch, with the dates of his employment engraved on the back. Because he has had the watch so long, he literally wore out the engraving. According to Pete Koegel, Jack was so well liked by everybody at Ford, that they re-engraved the dates on his watch.