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Fraser led UAW with 'combination of substance, politics and charm'

Doug Fraser was respected for his easygoing, approachable and straightforward manner. No matter whom he met, he asked to be called "Doug." Photo credit: 1982 PHOTO
DETROIT — Former UAW President, activist and professor Doug Fraser died Feb. 23 in a suburban Detroit hospital. He was 91.

Fraser was UAW president from 1977 to 1983, capping a career with the union that spanned more than four decades. During his presidency, Fraser spearheaded UAW lobbying on Capitol Hill to secure $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for Chrysler Corp. in 1979. The loan was instrumental in saving the company from bankruptcy.

"He was one of the great labor leaders in the last half of the 20th century," former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard told the Associated Press. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Blanchard worked with Fraser to help secure Chrysler's bailout.

Said Blanchard: "He had this combination of substance, politics and charm. He was a realist, and he knew that changes had to be made in order to survive."

Fraser was respected among the UAW rank and file for his easygoing, approachable and straightforward manner. No matter whom he met, he asked to be called "Doug."

"Everybody thought he was wonderful," his wife, Winnie Fraser, told the Detroit Free Press. "He was a good guy, he really was wonderful."

Improved conditions

An ardent champion of workers' rights, Fraser helped win improved working conditions in Detroit 3 factories, as well as health care benefits and uncapped cost-of-living allowances for UAW members through contract negotiations in the 1960s and 1970s.

For his efforts that ultimately saved Chrysler, Fraser was appointed to the automaker's board of directors in 1980 — a first for a leader of a major labor union.

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

Fraser was a savvy and pragmatic negotiator, which earned him respect among auto executives. He persuaded UAW workers to grant contract concessions to the Detroit 3 between 1979 and 1982, helping the companies survive a period of tremendous hardship for the American auto industry.

Fraser, born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1916, moved with his family to the United States when he was 6. As a young man, he found work in Chrysler's DeSoto plant.

It was there in the 1930s that Fraser participated in sit-down strikes, where workers refused to leave the factories until management agreed to negotiate for better wages and improvements in often dangerous workplaces.

Fraser was elected president of UAW Local 227 in 1944. In 1950, Walter Reuther tapped Fraser to be his administrative assistant. Fraser was named director of the UAW's Chrysler department in 1962 and worked there until being elected vice president of the UAW in 1970.

'Legacy lives on'

"Doug Fraser made a very important contribution to the UAW and the auto industry through creative problem-solving and partnership," General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner said in a statement. "His passing is a tremendous loss, but his legacy lives on through his innovative thinking, teachings and dedication to the UAW, the U.S. auto industry and the labor movement."

After retiring from the UAW in 1983, Fraser became a professor of labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. He continued to work there until a few weeks ago.

No official cause of death has been announced, but Fraser had long dealt with emphysema, the AP reported.

"I had the opportunity to work with Doug Fraser early in my career and he truly was an exceptional person," said Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. "Doug leaves a lasting legacy as one of America's great labor leaders and a man of integrity and wisdom. Ford Motor Company 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."

Said Gettelfinger: "He never forgot that we were working for our active and retired members. We will continue to draw encouragement from his life and legacy." 

You can reach Ryan Beene at autonews@crain.com

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