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“I suppose you could say I belonged to the union before I went to work because we talked about it all the time.”
“I was a teenager in the Depression. I saw misery and despair. I was angry at the injustice of it all and it had an impact on me the rest of my life.”
(On working in a 1930s auto factory)
“The best way to describe it … there was no dignity. You couldn’t question any decisions and you couldn’t dissent.”
“We’re willing to sacrifice, but only if there’s an equality of sacrifice – if every segment of the economy sacrifices equally. We’ve been saying for a long time that there is not a wage-price spiral at all now but a price-wage spiral.”
“Workers must have a say in the corporate decision-making process that so affects their lives.”
“Nothing's too good for the workers.”
(In response to an economist in 1980 saying autoworkers should stop complaining about low-wage competition and take a big pay cut) “No one has a bigger stake in the fight to remain noncompetitive with foreign producers than the worker. … Competing on wages with countries that share only minimally the benefits of productivity with their workers can hardly be an appropriate national goal for America.”
“The true spirit of our democratic society embraces the fundamental rights of workers to organize and to have safe and secure jobs in democratic workplaces.”
(On passing the presidential gavel to Owen Bieber)
“He had a hell of a time getting it out of my hand.”
(Editor's note: Jeanne Fraser is Doug's youngest daughter. Her mother, Eva Falk, was Doug's first wife, who died in 1968. Jeanne, an OPEIU 494 member, has worked at Solidarity House, the UAW headquarters in Detroit, since 1963. Here are some fond memories of her father on various topics, as told to Jennifer John.)
He'd visited Scotland many times since coming to America when he was 6. We even had a Fraser family tartan plaid with our own crest.
My dad remembered coming over. His mother was deathly ill the entire two-week trip on the ship. Once here he always wore knickers and kids at school teased him about them, so his mother got him pants.
Oddly enough, dad always had a thing about tablecloths being on the table whenever we went out to eat. We never understood why until one day he told us about how he and his sister Sally used to sneak up to the ship's first class dining room, climb under the tables – covered with white tablecloths – and bring bread to their mother.
He actually used to march my sister Judy and I into dinner. We thought he must have been a general or some big shot. Turns out he was only in the Army for nine months and he never left the states. He liked to joke that the war ended because he enlisted. He also talked about a bridge he helped build during the service. We always kidded him that we'd never, ever want to cross that bridge because frankly he wasn’t much of a handyman.
To this day, dad said he dreamed about Walter, whom he considered his mentor. My father thought Walter was such a visionary, so ahead of his time. He often quoted Walter regarding the media saying, “You need to talk to the press because they never run out of ink.”
After Walter’s death, dad never politicked and never asked for a vote. He knew Leonard (Woodcock) had been there longer and was due. My dad narrowly lost the board's poll and withdrew his bid for the good of the union.
It's not what he wanted. His heart, his soul was the UAW.
We were all in Texas for the UAW Convention. It meant the world to him to become UAW president. And, just like Walter did, he never sat down while a UAW convention was in session.
He really believed that if you were secure in yourself, you should always treat people with respect no matter who they are, from janitors to heads of state. He loved people and being with them. But he never took advantage of his position, like cutting in line to get a table ahead of others. He just never did that sort of thing.
His humanity. He used to say “always ask why” before you judge anyone. He taught me the importance of empathy.
That was just him. When we were kids, he never raised his voice or a hand to us. He'd just raise his eyebrows. Like all of us, he had his faults, but he was a genuinely caring and loving man. He was so extraordinary.
He loved teaching. Once he was lecturing at a college that was more conservative than most, and afterward several students came up to him and said he didn't fit their stereotype of a union leader: an overweight, cigar-chomping, foul-mouthed boss. Without missing a beat, dad said, “You just described Lee Iacocca.”
He always looked forward to getting up every morning to read the New York Times because he said, “I knew there was always something that would p-ss me off and get my adrenalin going!”
As hard as it was and as much as he did during those Chrysler years with the strike and bailout – and he had many sleepless nights – he felt that was nothing compared to what was going on in the labor movement now, or to what Ron Gettelfinger had to deal with in the 2007 auto negotiations.
He loved politics and really looked forward to this year’s presidential election. In fact, at one of our last dinners together he made a toast and said he wanted to live at least until January 2009 to see a Democrat in the White House again.
Did he ever think about it? Yes. What did he think about it? He didn't want to.
Mr. Fraser devoted his life to improving the workplace by ensuring workers receive fair pay, enjoy job security and are in a safe environment. He believed everyone must be treated with dignity and respect at work, and his example is one we all can follow.
Irvin D. Reid, president
Wayne State University, Detroit
He made you feel good merely by thrusting out his hand and greeting you with that beaming smile. The positive, uplifting impression he always conveyed, not only of himself, but also of the union he represented, will be with us forever.
Theodore J. St. Antoine,
UAW Public Review Board
Doug was one of those labor leaders who transcends individual union boundaries.
Leo W. Gerard, president
United Steelworkers of America
Doug’s work on behalf of our movement was extraordinary. He was a union builder who always had time to help not only the UAW, but the rest of us.
Larry Cohen, president
Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, CLC
Doug was a fierce advocate for workers who certainly would strongly challenge corporations whenever he thought that was appropriate. But Doug also was a strong advocate for cooperative win-win efforts between business and labor, which was and is a UAW tradition.
Larry Horwitz, president,
The Economic Alliance for Michigan
He worked to better the lives of all Americans on matters of great importance: health, working conditions, jobs, education and quality of life.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.
He was probably the most respected labor leader in America, and he had great political charm, as well as substantive commitment.
Former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard
Doug Fraser was a friend and a man of integrity who dedicated his heart and soul to working people. When he retired from serving his fellow UAW members, he went on to do the most noble thing: He taught others what he learned over his lifetime of service.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm
Ford Motor Co. will always owe Doug a debt of gratitude for the courage he showed during the 1982 contract negotiations in structuring an agreement that helped preserve the U.S. auto industry during tough economic times. He will be greatly missed.
Bill Ford, chairman
Ford Motor Co.
Doug’s retirement years were shaped by the same goal that had always been a driving force in his life: educating people to build a stronger union and a better society.
“The labor movement, the whole movement, is a constant struggle. It’s a never-ending struggle. And you have to view it that way. And if you rest on your oars, then you’re going to witness the demise of the labor movement. Practically, I can’t see that happening,” he said in a National Public Radio interview in 1997.
Doug joined the Wayne State University (WSU) faculty shortly after his retirement as UAW president in 1983. He taught masters level courses in labor and industrial relations, and undergraduate classes in labor studies.
Although he dropped out of high school in his senior year, Doug became a self-made scholar. One of the first classes Doug taught was “The Labor Movement in the Next Decade.”
“The people in the plants today are younger. They’re more educated. They raise more questions. They’re more demanding. They will simply not accept the working conditions of their fathers or grandfathers,” he said in a lecture at Harvard University in 1984.
Doug’s work as a teacher and scholar earned him recognition from some of this nation’s top universities, and he received numerous honorary degrees.
“Students loved him. Doug had a keen intellect second to none, and a wealth of experience in the labor movement and American politics, and the ability to teach from that vast experience. He was a great professor,” said Mike Smith, director of WSU’s Walter P. Reuther Library.
In November 1997 the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs at WSU created the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues. In recent years, Doug helped the Reuther Library preserve the historical record of the UAW and the American labor union movement.
In 2006 Doug received one of the greatest honors he could ever imagine: the Walter P. Reuther Humanitarian Award.
On May 18, 1977, delegates to the 25th UAW Constitutional Convention chose Doug Fraser as their next president – and the former DeSoto factory worker was off and running.
“In his first 30 days,” reported Solidarity magazine in June 1977, “he led a delegation to press President Carter for health security legislation, testified before Congress on energy and health bills, faced reporters on ‘Meet the Press,’ and addressed several union meetings.”
At his first press conference at Solidarity House, Doug endorsed the push by consumer advocates to build safer cars, with air bags and automatic seat belts. “I think the autoworkers,” he said, “are free to take a position on any social question.”
Indeed. Doug led the UAW during six turbulent years, characterized by a crisis in domestic auto manufacturing, a surge in imported vehicles, high inflation, high energy prices, and the growth of a right-wing political movement which supported Big Business attacks against working families.
Doug helped UAW members fight back by creating progressive coalitions to link the struggles of working people with related movements for social change.
Doug led UAW members in marching for the Equal Rights Amendment, lobbied with Coretta Scott King for the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, called for a freeze on car prices, and withdrew UAW funds from banks that provided loans to South Africa, still struggling under the weight of apartheid.
“We in the UAW don’t believe that the hard-earned dues money of our 1.5 million members should wind up being used directly or indirectly to aid a country that practices such racist, repressive and undemocratic policies,” said Doug.
In July 1978, furious at a big business campaign to scuttle a modest program of labor law reform, Doug resigned from the Labor-Management Group, a top-level forum for union and industry leaders. In a scathing letter of resignation, Doug accused business elites of waging a “one-sided class war” against workers, the unemployed, the poor and minorities.
Doug then took the initiative to organize the Progressive Alliance, bringing together more than 100 labor unions, environmental groups, women’s organizations and consumer groups, including the Friends of the Earth, the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and many others.
The Alliance rallied liberals and leftists around a program of full employment, alternative energy, expanded rights for women, health and safety in the workplace, and firm protections for consumers.
In 1979 UAW members and families faced a crisis that required every conceivable ounce of Doug’s skills as a bargainer, organizer and coalition-builder. Beset by years of bad management decisions, the Chrysler Corp. was on the verge of bankruptcy.
With the lights about to go out on more than 100,000 UAW jobs – and tens of thousands more in supplier plants – the union organized a massive grassroots lobbying effort, which successfully convinced Congress to provide $1.2 billion in federal loan guarantees. The deal never cost taxpayers a penny because Chrysler paid back its loans. But Chrysler workers made real sacrifices, contributing over $1.7 billion in concessions to keep the company afloat.
A great American company was saved, along with tens of thousands of jobs and the communities that depend on them. Ever afterward, Doug made sure everyone knew who deserved the real credit.
“It was Chrysler workers,” he said, “who saved the Chrysler Corporation!”
Also in 1979, the UAW was successful in stopping GM’s “Southern strategy” of shifting work to nonunion plants in the South. Workers at GM’s Oklahoma City plant voted by more than 2-to-1 in favor of becoming part of the UAW, and the union soon organized all the facilities GM had opened in Southern states.
In 1980 Doug traveled to Japan, urging auto companies there to open plants in the United States. “If you’re going to sell cars in the United States,” he said, “you should build cars in the United States.” Japanese companies eventually followed his advice, leading to a major presence of foreign nameplate operations on U.S. soil.
In 1981, after UAW convention delegates voted in favor of the move, Doug led the UAW back into the AFL-CIO. The reaffiliation came just in time for UAW members to participate in Solidarity Day, a giant demonstration in Washington, D.C., against Ronald Reagan’s anti-labor policies – including the firing of striking air traffic controllers – and his unfair budget cuts, which fell mostly on poor and working Americans.
In 1982, with GM and Ford facing financial difficulties, Doug led the UAW in an early round of auto talks. Union bargainers agreed to contract modifications, but also won limits on outsourcing and new job security agreements at GM and Ford.
Chrysler workers, meanwhile, began the long march back to parity, closing half the gap between their wages and their counterparts at Ford and GM.
To address the crisis in auto manufacturing, the union initiated a major push for domestic content legislation, which would have required cars built in the United States to include a fixed portion of parts made in the United States. The bill would have protected as many as 1 million U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Doug continued the UAW’s fight against apartheid in South Africa, and also lent union support to the struggling Solidarity movement in Poland. And a short item in Solidarity magazine in May 1982 notes that the UAW had joined a successful effort to pressure Brazil’s military dictators to free an imprisoned labor leader known as Lula – Luis Inacia da Silva.
Lula, a metalworker who is also head of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, is now the president of Brazil.
In 1983 Doug stepped down – reluctantly – as UAW president. “Owen will have to pry the gavel from my hands,” he told Automotive News. “I just don’t want to go.”
He wasn’t the only one. Many union members were reluctant to see a beloved union leader leave his post. But like many before him, Fraser turned his responsibilities over to a new generation of leaders, and saw UAW members continue as strong defenders of workers’ rights, and strong partners for social and political change.
From his very first days on the job, Doug knew he wanted to be a union activist.
Unfortunately, management knew that, too. Doug was fired from his first two jobs for trying to organize a union.
“At the second place, they broke into my toolbox and found authorization cards, so they found a way to fire me,” he recalled in an interview.
It was at the Ever-Hot Heating Company, his second job, that Doug experienced many of the indignities workers regularly faced on the job before unions and learned the lesson, “Don't forget where you come from.”
“The toilet was square in the center of the shop and from your waist up was plain glass. So when you go in to the toilet ... the boss could see you at all times,” Doug recalled.
In 1936 he found a job at the Chrysler-owned McGraw Street DeSoto plant on Detroit’s west side, where his father, Samuel Douglas Fraser, worked as an electrician. The younger Fraser worked as a conveyor loader and later as a metal finisher, earning $1.15 an hour, 15 cents more than an auto assembler.
During the March 1937 sit-down strikes at nine Chrysler plants in Detroit, both Doug Frasers sat in at Dodge Main.
Meanwhile, young Doug’s co-workers were quickly recognizing his leadership skills, electing him as steward, chief steward and recording secretary before electing him as UAW Local 227 president at age 26 in 1943.
Management was equally impressed with Doug’s leadership skills and offered him a supervisory position. A company official suggested that he take some time to think about the offer.
“It’s no point,” Doug recalled in a 1983 Detroit Free Press interview. “I don’t need any time. I’ve made up my mind what I want to do with my life.”
Having made up his mind, Doug applied all his energy and talent to building a strong local union, a strong UAW and a strong labor movement. After serving three terms as local union president, Doug was appointed in 1947 to the UAW’s International staff and assigned to the Chrysler Department.
During the historic 104-day strike against Chrysler in 1950 that won pensions for autoworkers, Doug’s negotiating skills caught the eye of then-UAW President Walter Reuther who appointed him as his administrative assistant in 1951.
In 1959 Doug was elected co-director of UAW Region 1A. In 1962 he was elected by the UAW Constitutional Convention as an International Executive Board member-at-large, and in 1970 UAW delegates elected Doug as a vice president of the UAW, where he headed the Chrysler Department.
As a UAW officer, Doug stayed closely connected with the UAW’s rank and file. Whenever he conducted factory floor tours, Doug took time out to talk with workers one on one.
Doug was popular with the members, even when the news he brought them wasn’t always good. They liked that he was straight with them, and everyone called him Doug.
Although he never finished high school, Doug was an avid reader. As a union leader, he was known for discussing economics with corporate executives, major social issues with political officials and shop floor concerns with factory workers.
Doug always said he tried to model himself after Reuther’s social unionism style of leadership.
A well-known political activist, he was frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate from Michigan, even before he became a UAW vice president.
In 1973 when Coleman Young was elected as the first African-American mayor of Detroit, at a time when police-community relations were an especially challenging issue, he turned to Doug to serve as chairman of the Detroit Police Commission. To unite the city, the new mayor needed someone whose judgment and integrity were universally respected. Doug was the perfect choice.
In 1974 Doug was named chairman of the Detroit United Way, the first labor leader ever to head up the charity’s fund drive in that city.
For his decades of volunteer work in the community, the UAW named the Douglas A. Fraser Community Services Swift Award in his honor.
Douglas Andrew Fraser was one of three children and often said his family was so poor that his father, who worked at a brewery, would sometimes fuel the family stove with stolen whiskey.
Doug was born Dec. 18, 1916, in a working-class neighborhood in Glasgow, Scotland.
In 1922 Doug’s father, who was named Samuel Douglas but preferred to be called Doug, left Scotland for America. Young Doug was 6 when he, his mother Sarah, younger brother Ken and older sister Sally sailed to New York City aboard the SS Cameronia.
The family left Ellis Island on April 23, 1923, and traveled by train to their new home on Detroit’s west side. Soon after, Doug’s father took a job at a local Studebaker plant.
To celebrate, Doug’s mother dressed the children up in their best clothes for a family portrait.
Growing up during the Great Depression, Doug’s family experienced some hard times when his father, an electrician, was out of work for extensive periods.
Doug would say later that the poverty and social disorder he witnessed early influenced his fight for social and economic justice.
“The greatest lesson in my life, the most valuable experience, was going through the Depression,” Doug told Monthly Detroit magazine in 1979.
“The lesson of the Depression is how an economic system can be so cruel that people are robbed of their rights and their dignity because they have to beg for jobs and grovel for jobs, do favors and bribe for jobs. … In our neighborhood so many people were on welfare. No one had a job. No unemployment compensation. People were really in desperate economic straits.”
His father, who was active in unions and frequently took young Doug to political meetings, also influenced him.
Doug was a tall, skinny, dark-haired kid who loved baseball. He attended Holy Redeemer in southwest Detroit, then Clippert Elementary, Munger Intermediate and Chadsey High School.
Before his senior year, Doug, who had suffered rheumatic fever, dropped out. He was 18 and just shy of graduation.
He would later say he regretted that decision.
Former UAW President Owen Bieber said that while Doug Fraser brought the membership through many difficult battles, he will be remembered for his guidance during the Chrysler bailout and later critical negotiations at Ford and General Motors.
“That (the Chrysler bailout) was a terribly, terribly, terribly tough time for Doug. He handled it well. I don’t know if anyone else would have been successful in an endeavor like that,” Bieber recalled.
Bieber was president of the UAW and a Chrysler board member when Iacocca retired. Most of the Chrysler board heaped praise on him for “saving Chrysler.”
“Unfortunately, Lee Iacocca got all the praise for saving Chrysler. Lee liked praise – no question,” he said. “But every now and then I had to chime in and say, ‘Don’t forget, it was the workers who saved Chrysler – the workers and Doug Fraser’s leadership.
“I owe a great deal of debt to Doug for his help when I needed it,” Bieber added. “The one thing I hope people remember is that while he was a great leader of our union, he was a special individual.”
It is an honor for the UAW to pay special tribute to Doug Fraser and his life in this issue of Solidarity.
We recognize that any attempt to capture the life of such a vibrant individual in a few pages is a grave injustice; however, it is through this forum that we are provided with the opportunity to express our love and appreciation for the sixth president of our union.
Doug’s life epitomized living the American dream. It was because of his background and ethics that he was able to serve the membership of our union in a manner that was above reproach.
Doug never forgot the “sacred trust” that was bestowed on him to serve the best interests of our members and their families. Under Doug’s tenure there was never even a hint of an appearance of a conflict of interest.
It was because of his leadership that the UAW is a stronger and better union, and our membership, active and retired, were well served during his tenure.
In the UAW, among those in organized labor and on the circuit he traveled, all anyone had to say was “Doug,” and that was enough for everyone to know who you were talking about.
You could not help but have a warm feeling at the mention of Doug’s name and a special pride in the fact that he was a perfect representative of the UAW.
His tenure as president of our union ended at the 27th UAW Constitutional Convention in Dallas on May 19, 1983, when he turned the gavel over to President Owen Bieber.
But Doug never walked away from being a representative of the UAW. He went on to live a full life in his role as labor educator, and he was extremely proud to occupy an office at the Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit.
In our own minds, each of us has personal reflections and memories of Doug.
He always seemed to be there for our union regardless of the circumstances, and he always reminded us that it was never about any one individual but always about the membership.
In his final speech to the convention as president, Doug said the following:
"This union has been my school and my college and my education. This union has opened the door to worlds that I never dreamed of. I met with presidents and with prime ministers and other leaders of the world, and engaged in important and stimulating meetings."
"It wasn’t me who went through the door; it was you who went through that door. I went through there, because you let me be a leader of this great institution."
We all feel a great void with the death of Doug. Our union family lost a wonderful friend, mentor and a great trade unionist.
This special issue of Solidarity is dedicated to former UAW President Douglas A. Fraser.
Doug, as he was known to most everyone, died Feb. 23, 2008, of complications from a long battle with emphysema.
His influence on the labor movement in general and the UAW in particular could fill volumes. In this issue we pay tribute to Doug by looking back at his early years as a young boy coming to America, his rise through the ranks to union leadership, his years as UAW president and his retirement – if you could call it that – when he taught and lectured at Wayne State and other universities, passing on his wealth of knowledge to future generations.
Doug, we'll miss your easy-going manner and trademark grin. But most of all we'll just miss you.
The UAW extends its deepest sympathy to Doug’s wife, Winifred, and their family.