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Working For The Union

July 2024
17min read

At a time of crisis for American labor, an organizer looks back on the turbulent fifty-year career that brought him from the shop floor to the presidency of the United Automobile Workers.

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?

Seventeen—eighteen. In the early 1930s I worked at Bryant’s. Bryant was the brother of Clara Bryant, who was Henry Ford’s wife. He had a salesroom out on Warren Avenue near River Rouge, and in the back he had a machine shop, and I got fired from there for trying to organize a union. Then I went to a heating company that made hot-water heaters. It was a shop of about three hundred and fifty people, and I also got discharged from there for union activity. Then I went to work for Chrysler on December 8, 1936. I was a little short of twenty. I started over at Dodge Main, because they had a school for metal finishers and torch solderers. Then I went on to the DeSoto plant as a metal finisher and welder.

Why were you a union advocate at such a young age?

My dad was. He was a member of the Socialist party in Scotland, and he was the secretary of his branch, and we always talked about the union. Before the birth of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations], he had to struggle for a while to decide if he was for a crafts union or an industrial union. He finally came down on the side of an industrial union and became involved with the UAW.

When did you get a union at DeSoto?

With the sit-down strike in the Chrysler plants. It lasted about nineteen days. I was still over at Dodge, but my dad was in the sit-down. I used to go over and visit him, and I used to pass a few things to him through the fence. Like a lot of revolutions, it was basically the young people who were more willing to put it on the line. My father was probably an exception to the rule, and I remember he came home and told my mother the risk involved, about how he could lose his job if it didn’t work out, and she told him, “You do what you have to do.”

How did you rise in the union?

First, I ran for chief steward on the second shift. Got elected. After that I ran for steward on the first shift. Got elected. Then I got elected president when I was twenty-six. I think now of what I didn’t know when I was running for president! We were all young and aggressive, and we got by and we learned. We were a little wild, but I think you had to be in those days.

Then how did you get on the union staff?

I was appointed. I had done a short stint in the Army and come back and got elected local president again. Then I went on the union’s Chrysler staff. In the 1951 Chrysler strike, which lasted 104 days, I was with Walter Reuther constantly. After that strike he asked me to work for him as his administrative assistant. I stayed with Walter for eight years, and I really loved working for him. You could get things done. Then the regional director on the west side of Detroit was in a plant one day giving a speech and dropped dead. I had no great ambition to be regional director, but I started thinking about it, and I thought, being on the board, I could help make union policy. So I decided to run. In January 1959 I was elected regional director. Very quickly after that, in 1962, we created a position called executive board member at large, and what we wanted to do was get a black on the board. Walter asked me, “Why don’t we have three board members at large? And you become director of the Chrysler Department.” I had liked being regional director—you’re close to the locals—but he persuaded me that I had an obligation to do it. Then I was elected vice-president.

Walter Reuther’s been dead now for fifteen years. What kind of person was he?

He was not as doctrinaire as a lot of people thought he was, particularly as time went on. When I went to work for Walter, I was pretty doctrinaire, and he taught me flexibility. I remember chatting with him shortly before he died. I forget what issue it was, but he said, “You know. I’m not convinced that our friends are right, that the solution to every problem is nationalizing.” He said there was a lot to be said for competition in the marketplace. And I think he’s right. Pluralism is the best answer, where the private sector can discipline the public sector, and the public sector can discipline the private sector. The Tennessee Valley Authority is an example.

Walter also was a magnificent phrasemaker. For instance, we had an OPA [Office of Price Administration] rally right after the war ended, and we shut down all the plants in Detroit and had a massive rally in Cadillac Square. This was before Walter was president. The internal union friction had already begun, so they put Walter last on the program. R. J. Thomas spoke, and George Addes [then union secretary-treasurer and a Reuther foe], and they were making the point that it was not the farmers that were benefiting from these high wartime prices, it was the middlemen. I will never forget Walter getting up. He made essentially the same point but said it this way: “I was in Minnesota last week, talking to some farmers, and for the first time I realized that you can make more money milking a farmer than you can milking a cow.” Everybody remembered that in the shop the next day.


Walter was an extremely bright man. He was always presented as a fiery redhead, but he was also a man of considerable culture, a great follower of the symphony. But I think the thing that most people never saw was really the fun, that’s the only way I can describe it, the fun we used to have just talking and laughing, ribbing each other.

How strong was the Communist party in the UAW?

Very significant at one time. They had complete control of a strike at Allis-Chalmers and destroyed the union there for a while. At the Ford Rouge plant the party was a tremendous influence. There’s a story guys tell me who were party guys, that you couldn’t get elected a committeeman in the stamping plant unless you were a party guy. The party people had tremendous influence. But they destroyed themselves, and I’ll tell you why. I remember at Local 51, the old Plymouth local, when I was out at Chrysler. I don’t know if the president of the local union, Pop Edlan, belonged to the party, but if he didn’t, he was cheating them out of dues. He followed every twist and turn of the party line. We were at a union council meeting, this in a period during the Hitler and Stalin pact, and Local 51 sent in a resolution: “The Yanks are not coming. Let’s not get involved in imperialistic bloodbaths. Roosevelt the warmonger!” These were the slogans. Then comes June 22, 1941, and Hitler invades the Soviet Union. It happened in between meetings. So the Plymouth local sends in another resolution about the sacred crusade against fascism, calling for a second front. The president of the county council says, “Read that resolution from Local 51,” and they read the resolution that said “bloodbath,” and then they read the other resolution from Local 51, “the sacred crusade against fascism.” The president turns to Pop Edlan, who was sitting out in the audience, and he said, “Now, Pop, which one do you want?” The party did things like that, and they lost credibility. But still a lot of guys stuck with them. And I can remember guys sticking with the party right until the invasion of Hungary. But I would argue that most of them were not there for purely intellectual reasons. They were a product of the misery that they experienced when they were kids. They left the party because of the twists and turns of the party line, and the absolute obedience required.

But the Communists were well trained, they were good speakers, they had a sense of how to organize. That’s how they got in the local unions and took over. We were no match for them when we were kids, but I think we got a little better than they did because we weren’t hampered by their rigidity of thought. They would just blindly follow the party line and didn’t have much imagination. But they made a substantial contribution.

Why did strong feelings and hatred toward party members continue for so long? Why was the fighting so vicious?

They hated Walter because he was so effective. He was a tough fighter and a tough anti-Communist. And Walter exploited those issues. When I look back I think there were a couple of things we shouldn’t have done. We might have gone overboard. But the Communists hated Walter with a passion because he was effective.

Did he hate them too?

No question about it.

Let’s talk a bit about why the merger in December 1955 between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations took place. The AFL was moderate; the CIO was more militant and had done much to organize the manufacturing industries in the 1930s and 1940s. Why did the groups join, and why did Walter Reuther accept the AFL-CIO vice-presidency, with George Meany getting the presidency?

The simple truth of the matter is that Walter had no choice. If he had resisted, Dave McDonald, president of the United Steelworkers of America, and a couple of others would have left the CIO, and they put enormous pressure on Walter. Walter held out as long as he could for an ethical practices committee and a lot of other things that Meany didn’t want. Walter was willing to concede the presidency, and what Walter got out of it was the formation of the IUD, the Industrial Union Department, of which he was president. But Walter’s bargaining position was eroding.

I think, in a way, the competition was good. I think the existence of the CIO changed the AFL’s traditional positions in many areas—on the economy, on civil rights, on a whole variety of domestic issues. We weren’t able to manage anything on foreign policy. In fact it got so that the ClO guys sort of adopted Meany’s hard line. But I would argue that the AFL became a better institution because of the merger. It became more progressive.

The image of unions in America is often a negative one. Why?

For a couple of reasons, some of our own doing. Corruption is one reason. Corruption affects only a handful of union people, but it sticks. When there is corruption, everyone gets tarred with the same brush. We also were hurt in the old days by people taking the Fifth Amendment.

There are two other reasons, neither of them valid. We are blamed for the inflation [of the seventies], which is certainly not the case. It was caused by the oil shock, more than anything. We also are perceived as a special interest group. There are some unions that are special interest groups concerned only with their own issues. They don’t give a damn about what’s going on in the rest of the world. We are not a special interest group. But we get in trouble with our membership because often we are not satisfied to just cozy up with our enemies and take care of only our members.

We would be more popular if we weren’t involved in civil rights and other causes. We supported a tax increase in Michigan. That kind of stuff is often not DODular with our members.

Sometimes one wonders whether the glory days of unions are over. Today unions probably represent less than 20 percent of the work force. Union victories in organizing elections are less than 50 percent. The National Labor Relations Act granted workers the right to organize and bargain with their employers, but that often seems thwarted. Why do labor unions have such problems, and what will unions do to solve them?

Corruption affects only a handful of union people, but everyone gets tarred with the same brush.

Sooner or later the workers of the South will say, why the hell are we second-class citizens?

We desperately need labor-law reform. I read an article by a professor at Harvard who compared the United States with Canada: in the mid-1960s, both countries had 26 percent of the workforce organized. And now we’ve shrunk, and they’re at 40 percent and have grown by leaps and bounds. I look at the UAW —same organizers in both countries, trained the same way, using the same materials. What’s the difference? The difference is in the law and, maybe nearly as important, in what is acceptable social conduct on the part of the employer. You know, no employer in Canada would dream of hiring the antiunion law firms that get used against us. It’s unacceptable conduct.

What would you want to change in our labor laws?

One of the secrets in Canada is you file for an election, and the election takes place right away, rather than the way we do it here, where an election takes place later. In Canada the employers don’t have time to erode your majority, and you get recognized, and you bargain. We’ve got cases here that have been tied up for six years on the question of whether the workers can join a union. There’s none of that in Canada. Another change we’ve needed since my days of organizing is what we call equal access. We said in 1979 [when the American labor movement backed a proposed federal law that would have amended labor legislation to make it easier for unions to organize and win contracts] that we should have the right to go on company property and present our point of view. Our opponents in the Congress said that’s a violation of property rights. So we said, “OK, we don’t have any right to go on company property; but as a right of free speech, we can do whatever the employer does. If the employer talks to workers individually, and pedals the antiunion line, we have the right to talk to workers individually.”

Do unions still know how to organize?

I think it’s possible to organize. But it’s tough out there. The UAW spent $4,400,000 in 1983 on organizing. That’s a pretty tidy sum. People used to come to me when I was president and say the union should commit more resources to organizing. I said: “Look, we’ve got the money—if you could tell me that the answer to organizing is to pour resources in, I would not hesitate to spend ten million dollars. But employers are more sophisticated.”

Here’s one of the best examples of why it’s not easy. In 1982, after our negotiations, General Motors reduced the health benefits of their salaried workers fairly substantially and reduced the cost-of-living supplements by thirty-four cents an hour. The union contract didn’t reduce the workers’ cost-of-living payment, it just froze it for nine months. So immediately we get calls, and we started campaigns to organize white-collar workers in Flint, in Pontiac, at Lordstown, Ohio. We got over 70 percent of the white-collar workers to sign cards in Flint, also 70 percent in Pontiac, and 68 percent in Lordstown. GM restored the health benefits and said they would restore the thirty-four cents in January 1983. So Martin Gerber [then the union’s director of organizing] came and said, “That goddamned company, they’re unfair.” I said, “Martin, what do you want me to do? Go to the company and say, ‘Don’t you dare give those workers those benefits back?’ ” I said, “Why don’t we join the issue?” And the issue is that it’s the principles—democracy in the workplace, do you want to have a voice in your own future, your own destiny, or do you want Roger Smith, GM chairman, to make these decisions for you, and give you what he feels like giving you and take it away when he feels like taking it away? That’s the issue.

So you did try organizing the white-collar workers.

Sure we did.

What happened?

We got licked in all three union elections. That’s the point. We got licked in all three elections.

But doesn’t that tell you something? With the labor movement at this 20 percent figure or less, and a lot of employers being intransigent, coupled with such things as the seeming impossibility of organizing in Burger King or McDonald’s, given the thousands of little establishments involved, do you see a future for the movement? Or is size important anymore?

I think it’s important but I don’t think it’s crucial. People say, what about a smaller UAW? Well, the UAW can be an effective organization—we’re running at about 1,150,000 members all this year—it depends on where you put your resources, and the commitment you make.

I guess I have faith that sooner or later, for example, the workers from the South are going to say, why the hell are we second-class citizens? Why should we work for wages and conditions inferior to those in the North? And the employers will make mistakes. But you’re right. You get an employer who pays comparable wages and fringe benefits, and it’s hard to organize. But there’s another factor: Some people think that in tough times, workers will come to unions in droves. But that hasn’t been happening in the eighties so far, because you get to a point where things are so bad that workers are easily intimidated.

It doesn’t help unions, though, when unions get beat up and lose strikes like those at Phelps Dodge or Louisiana-Pacific or Continental Airlines or that of the air traffic controllers. Does there come a time when the AFL-CIO or a group of unions is going to say, “We’re not going to lose this one?”

That’s been done, but not too successfully. We’ve got to think about different ways to battle. You know, I’ll bet you that I could have designed a strategy where the air traffic controllers would have won that strike [in 1981], by guerrilla warfare, by work slowdowns, other stuff. And Greyhound [in 1983], maybe, too. We have to look for different tactics now.

Let’s take the Phelps Dodge strike [which has been going on at Morenci, Arizona, and other places in the Southwest, since July 1983]. The guys stop production at the plant, but just for a little while. The thing about any action like that is you can’t sustain it. You’ve got to win it in the first couple of days. By winning it, I mean being able to close the goddamned thing down fast and make the employer come to the bargaining table. You can’t win a protracted battle, because then you get injunctions, and you get people jailed and people sued.

Looking back, is your view of employers any different now from what it was when you were a young man in the DeSoto plant?

Yes. The big employers are different, even though I still get enraged today with the things that used to anger me then. For example, a superintendent or a Remsnyder bawling out a worker in front of his fellow workers—I get just as mad today as I would have in the 1930s. I get as angry about unemployment and deprivation as I did then.

But I think, being objective, that the employers have changed. Not necessarily in their attitudes toward the workers. But they used to think their responsibility began and ended with the stockholders. They had no responsibility to or awareness of the community. That’s changed. It was coincidental with the urban riots of the sixties, and I don’t know what the motivating factor was—it doesn’t matter—but now most of them view their responsibilities differently.

But does it bother you when the auto industry is cutting back, and the workers are losing, and the executives get huge bonuses?

You wonder where the hell their brains are. At one of the last Chrysler board meetings I attended, they fixed up this deal for Lee Iacocca. They gave him one hundred and fifty thousand shares at that day’s price—I figure it was a cool four million dollars or so. Now he’s not in the room when this is discussed. So I get into an argument with these guys on the board about the values in society. That money is I don’t know how many times more than I make in fifty years of work, and here he makes it in five minutes. In addition to the money, I said, it’s the perception of what the workers feel out there, and the general public.

With all of its flaws, the labor movement has played a damned constructive role in America.

When I walked out of the board meeting, the first guy I run into is Lee. I told him what I said, and he sort of brushed it off and says, “Well, I’m not going to get any of it anyway, the kids’ll get it.” When I sat down to lunch, I was still mad, and another board member came up to me and said, “Don’t be so upset, Doug. Wouldn’t you like to see the look on Henry Ford’s face when he reads about this tomorrow?” And lightning strikes. This has nothing to do with money—it’s let’s get even, show Ford that I’m going to be the richest S.O.B. in the auto industry.

In July it will be fifty years since the National Labor Relations Act was passed. What do you think unions have done for this country?

Unions have civilized the workplace, given the workers dignity and selfrespect, and have improved enormously the standard of living of the workers generally, whether you belong to the union or not. The labor movement—or a good section of the labor movement—has played a major role in advancing social causes in our country. We were in the forefront of the civil rights struggle, we were in the forefront of environmental struggles, and all of the others.

I’m not saying the labor movement is without flaws. I look at the Teamsters. I said one time at a press conference—though I shouldn’t have said it—that in order to be eligible to be the president of the Teamsters Union you have to be indicted at least twice. But that’s the bottom side. I think the labor movement, with all of its flaws, has played a damned constructive role in American society. I think our country is better off for it.

What about those guys at the Chrysler plant fifty years ago? What did they think they were going to get by forming a union?

If I’d say one thing, it would be freedom. Freedom, individuality, respect. That’s what they wanted more than anything else. They wanted to be able to stand up to Remsnyder.

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