Union's Past Is Its Prologue

February 27, 2008
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All of his life, Doug Fraser confronted change head on. And now, it seems, change may overwhelm his successors in the union movement.

The affable union leader was one of the first Americans to feel the tremors of what is now called globalization while he was serving as the president of the United Auto Workers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The word “globalization” may have been something few understood, but Fraser knew it would soon change everything.

But perhaps what was most significant, to many, about Fraser’s career, was his effort to move the UAW away from the militancy that had characterized the union in the years when it was led by his friend and mentor Walter Reuther.

While many credit former CEO Lee Iacocca for “saving” Chrysler from financial collapse, in 1981, with a line of federally backed loan guarantees, it was Fraser who convinced reluctant workers to tear up their existing contract and make the necessary concessions to win over Washington lawmakers. Later, during his 1977-to-1983 tenure as UAW president, Fraser coaxed the union into giving up wages and benefits at General Motors and Ford Motor Co. even before anyone had heard the word "concessions."

The battle inside the union was ferocious, but Fraser constantly cited the need for the UAW to keep an eye on the auto industry's changing fortunes and the need to adapt to them.

The UAW needed a new approach because of the growing challenges created by the energy crisis and by foreign imports, said Fraser.

In return for the wage and benefit concessions, however, Fraser won new employment guarantees and extra jobless pay that ultimately led to the creation of the broad safety net that characterized UAW contracts over the next two decades.

Some of the changes Fraser sought have ultimately changed the industry in ways he wouldn’t have liked. An outspoken critic of Japanese imports, Fraser prodded the Asian carmakers to build plants in the United States, expecting the employees would wind up joining the UAW. With a few exceptions, the so-called transplants have remained non-union. But the new plants have helped keep the U.S. auto industry as vibrant and as competitive as any in the world.

Known for his colorful – and more than occasionally scatological language – Fraser was never reluctant to admit he didn’t have a good answer, at one point telling a reporter, “We’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.”

While Fraser retired from the union, in 1983, he didn’t fade away. In fact, he maintained his position on the Chrysler Board of Directors for four years afterward – a spot granted as a trade-off for the 1981 concessions package, but ultimately eliminated as Fraser’s successors returned to a slightly more confrontational approach to unionism.

At least temporarily. But from his post at the Walter Reuther Library Detroit’s Wayne State University, Fraser continued to nudge the UAW to view the big picture, which meant it would be impossible to continue making the sort of grand gains of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Only last fall, for example, Fraser offered some valuable insight to UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, who was in the midst of negotiating new contracts with Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. It was a whole lot easier to negotiate contracts when the industry was expanding than when it was shrinking, Fraser noted.

“It’s a huge loss,” said Gettelfinger. “Doug was a friend, a mentor, and a counselor to so many within the UAW and the larger labor movement. His integrity and his enduring commitment to protecting the rights of workers will continue to inspire us,” Gettelfinger said.

Looking ahead, industry and labor observers believe that the changes Fraser pioneered will continue reshaping the auto industry – and, in many ways, the broader economy. By Joseph Szczesny

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