Working For The Union

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Douglas A. Fraser is unusual among American union leaders of this generation. He started out as a worker, not as a professional union man, during that fervid time of union organization, the Great Depression, and witnessed the founding of his own union. When Fraser retired from the presidency of the United Automobile Workers in 1983, it marked the end of an epoch in the UAW and in American trade unionism. Almost alone among modern union leaders, Fraser knew firsthand what working was like before the union and what it was like after.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, on December 18. 1916, Fraser came to this country with his parents in 1922. He attended public elementary schools in Detroit and then Chadsey High School, but he did not graduate. As the Depression was closing in on his family, on Detroit and the country, he took that classic American step: he went to work in the factory.

The son of a union man and Socialist, Fraser soon became active in the United Automobile Workers, which was then forming in the Midwest. A steward, then a committeeman, he was elected president of Local 227 in Detroit in 1943. After service in the United States Army from 1945 to 1946, where he advanced to sergeant, he returned to Detroit and began a steady rise in the growing union. He was elected an international representative from 1947 to 1951, and from 1951 to 1958 he served as an administrative assistant to the fiery Walter P. Reuther. Fraser was named to the union’s executive board in 1962 and became an international vice-president in 1970.

That year, in May, Reuther was killed in a plane crash in northern Michigan and was succeeded by another union vice-president, Leonard Woodcock, who defeated Fraser by a 13 to 12 vote of the union’s executive board. In 1977, as Woodcock retired, Fraser was elected to succeed him by unanimous vote of the union board. Fraser became the fifth president in the history of the modern UAW, following Homer Martin. R. J. Thomas, Reuther, and Woodcock. When Fraser retired, he was succeeded by the UAWs current president, Owen F. Bieber.

As a union leader, Fraser was regarded in Detroit as humane and forthcoming. His white hair, Scottish accent, and easygoing, sometimes earthy manner that, despite the passage of decades, smacked of his days on the factory floor also distinguished him from most modern union leaders. Still he was an exceedingly tough-minded unionist, like most men who rise through the ferocious fighting that can characterize union politics. He confronted his union rivals with intense vigor, in both private and public.

Fraser is a liberal, an activist in the Democratic party, a defender of black, minority, and women’s rights, and a supporter of workplace democracy. In the labor negotiations in 1980 with the Chrysler Corporation, he broke new ground in American labor-management relations when, as UAW president, he was named a director of the Chrysler Corporation. The company accepted Fraser, it said, because of its respect for him.

Fraser, now sixty-eight, was interviewed in his office in the Walter R Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he has been teaching since his retirement.

What you gained from the union was the right to talk back, to dissent, and that’s one hell of a feeling.

What was it like working in the plant before the union?

The best way to describe it, to use an old-fashioned word, is that there was no dignity . You couldn’t question any decisions and you couldn’t dissent. Nobody did. If you were lucky, you might have run into a good boss, but in that case he was a benevolent dictator. My boss was an S.O.B. by the name of Remsnyder, and I’ll never forget him. Everybody was really scared of that guy. He never smiled, and I can see him today: he always wore a hat squared on his head, never tilted to one side, and he would just sit at a stool at his desk or stand in the middle of the department floor, and he would look around and once in a while take a walk around the department and never stop and talk to anybody except to chew him out. Or he had his foreman do his dirty work. That was the kind of environment. People feared Remsnyder.

Dignity was the great thing that came out of union organization. When you think of it, wages in the auto industry were not bad, and nobody had benefits of any kind. So you didn’t realize what you were missing. But what you gained from the union was the right to talk back, the right to question decisions, the right to dissent, and that’s one hell of a feeling. They’ll never take the democracy away from us, the right of the individual to speak up in dissent and file a grievance. That was a revolution.

How old were you when you went into the plant?