IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Former UAW boss Douglas Fraser dead at 91

Douglas A. Fraser, who led the United Auto Workers union through dark hours in the U.S. auto industry, has died. He was 91.
Image: Douglas Fraser
With his mischievous smile and gregarious, easygoing manner, Douglas Fraser was popular with the union's rank-and-file, who appreciated his candor and accessibility. Everyone called him Doug. Carlos Osorio / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Douglas A. Fraser, who led the United Auto Workers union through dark hours in the U.S. auto industry in the 1970s and ’80s, has died. He was 91.

Fraser died late Saturday at Providence Hospital in Southfield, his wife, Winnie, said Sunday. She said he had emphysema and went into the hospital with breathing problems, but a cause of death wasn’t determined.

With his mischievous smile and gregarious, easygoing manner, Fraser was popular with the union’s rank-and-file, who appreciated his candor and accessibility. Everyone called him Doug.

“Everybody thought he was wonderful,” Winnie Fraser said. “He was a good guy, and he really was (wonderful).”

He also was a shrewd and pragmatic negotiator who won the respect of Big Three executives. In the 1960s and ’70s, he helped win such benefits as comprehensive health care and improved working conditions.

But he faced challenges as UAW president from 1977 to 1983, a period of severe financial hardship for the industry that forced the union to make unprecedented concessions.

“Doug was a friend, a mentor and a counselor to so many within the UAW and the larger labor movement,” UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said in a statement. “His integrity and his enduring commitment to protecting the rights of workers will continue to inspire us.”

Fraser considered his finest achievement the UAW’s campaign to obtain $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for Chrysler Corp. in 1979, which saved the automaker from bankruptcy.

“At the time, he was probably the most respected labor leader in America and he had great political charm, as well as substantive commitment,” said former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, who knew Fraser for more than 30 years and as a U.S. House member worked with Fraser on the efforts to guarantee Chrysler’s loans.

“He was really key in everything that happened to save Chrysler.”

Fraser’s decisions to give contract concessions to Chrysler in 1979 and to Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. in 1982 were opposed by many UAW members but contributed to the U.S. auto industry’s recovery.

As part of the agreement for concessions, Chrysler gave Fraser a seat on its board, making him the first major union chief on the board of a large corporation. He donated his board salary to Wayne State University in Detroit.

A lifelong Democrat, Fraser proudly called himself a liberal. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. He supported school busing to achieve racial integration, a position strongly opposed by many of his fellow UAW members. He pushed an often reluctant UAW and the Big Three to recruit more minorities and women. And he fought for national health insurance.

Fraser retired in 1983 but kept active in politics and union issues. He served as a professor in the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs at Wayne State. He also served on the boards of several organizations and as an AFL-CIO arbitrator in organizing disputes between different unions.

“He was one of those folks, one of the few people that have it,” said Mike Smith, director of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. “It’s hard to describe, but he was a great labor leader and he was a fine trade unionist who segued into a second career as a professor at Wayne State.”

Smith said Fraser had been at work at Wayne State until a few weeks ago. Winnie Fraser said her husband recently had surgery on an ankle and later had been ill with intestinal flu, but he had gotten over that illness.

In 2005, he spoke at a gathering marking the 70th anniversary of the union, saying globalization had brought its active and retired workers new threats that were unknown decades ago.

“Everyone thinks the toughest times were their times. I don’t think that’s so,” Fraser said. “I think the toughest times are now.”

After the UAW reached historic agreements with the Detroit automakers last fall that include a lower wage scale for new hires and the union taking on retiree health care for the companies, Fraser said the deals were necessary to keep the companies afloat and competitive with their Japanese rivals.

“I frankly don’t know any other alternative,” Fraser said in an interview with The Associated Press in November, praising Gettelfinger for finding creative ways to help the struggling companies while at the same time preserving as many UAW jobs as he could.

Winnie Fraser said a memorial service for her husband would be scheduled later, and his body was being donated to Wayne State.

Born Dec. 18, 1916, in Glasgow, Scotland, Fraser immigrated to Detroit with his parents six years later. His father, an electrician, was active in unions and frequently brought his young son to political meetings.

Fraser said he never forgot his roots growing up in a working-class neighborhood and the effects of the Great Depression.

“That experience was so searing, I think it changed my politics forever,” Fraser said in a 1997 interview with The AP.

“In an auto neighborhood like ours, hardly anybody worked,” he recalled. “People lost their sense of dignity. They all were very proud, like my father. And it was shattering not being able to support a family.”

Fraser dropped out of high school in his senior year and joined the UAW in 1936. He said he was fired from his first two jobs for union organizing but eventually found steady work as a “ding man,” smoothing out dents in body panels at Chrysler’s DeSoto plant.

At age 25, Fraser was president of the UAW local. When he returned from serving in the Army during World War II, DeSoto executives offered him a management job.

He instead joined the UAW staff in 1947 and steadily moved up the ranks through the 1950s and ’60s.

He was considered a potential successor to President Walter Reuther. But after the revered leader died in a plane crash in 1970, Fraser narrowly lost a poll of the executive board to Leonard Woodcock, head of the big GM unit. Fraser withdrew his bid for the presidency rather than divide the union, and he served as vice president with Woodcock.

He succeeded Woodcock in 1977. U.S. auto sales grew to a then-record of 12.7 million units that year, but by 1979 they tumbled to 8.3 million as imports, with their stress on fuel economy, captured a surprising 21.7 percent share of the market.

Chrysler was on the verge of bankruptcy. Fraser worked with the Carter administration and Congress to get the loan guarantees approved. Chairman Lee Iacocca helped convince Republican members of Congress, but Fraser said Iacocca was given too much credit.

“I resent it a bit, not for myself but for the Chrysler workers, when people say Lee Iacocca saved the Chrysler Corporation,” Fraser said. “The Chrysler workers saved the Chrysler Corporation.”

In 1982, Ford was in dire straits as the nation sank into a recession. The UAW offered major concessions in wages and benefits. To avoid a three-tier wage system, the same wage concessions were given to GM.

“When I look back, although we obviously had considerable opposition, I’m glad we did it,” Fraser said. “That was a turning point in Ford’s economic well-being.”

In 1997, he said he had no regrets about his life.

“I can say, without equivocation, I’d do the same thing,” he said. “You get a lot of satisfaction from that.”

Fraser has two daughters from his first marriage, Judith Yonish and Jeanne Fraser, and his wife has two daughters from her first marriage, Barbara Mackenzie and Sandy Bryner. The Frasers also have several grandchildren.