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EDWARD LAPHAM

Doug Fraser: A good man to have known

Edward Lapham is the executive editor of Automotive News.
Former UAW President Doug Fraser, who died Feb. 23 at age 91, is remembered as one of the great labor leaders and industrial visionaries of the last century.

He certainly was that.

Doug Fraser — the last of the generation of early UAW pioneers tapped by Walter Reuther for leadership roles in the union and society — was also a good guy to know.

He had a winning personality that made it easy for him to talk with anyone and endeared him to reporters. And he had a way of drawing you into his vision. Along with his native intellect and hard-won street smarts, Fraser had an easy wit and a Scotsman's candor.

In 1979, during the campaign to secure federal loan guarantees for Chrysler, Fraser called General Motors CEO Thomas Murphy "a horse's ass" when told that Murphy opposed a federal rescue for Chrysler.

The quote got big play in the media. Four years later, during one of the many exit interviews he gave as he was about to retire, Fraser was asked whether there was anything in his career he regretted. The union leader remembered his comment but stopped short of saying he regretted it. Instead, Fraser paused for a moment and got a twinkle in his eye. Then, with a grin, noted that "nobody ever corrected me."

Workers' causes

Doug Fraser, president of the UAW from 1977 to 1983, could have been anything in life. He could have been a captain of industry. He could have been a statesman. That he was a workingman who championed the cause of workers defined him and his values.

I met Fraser for the first time in early 1971; it was just long enough to say, "Hello, how do you do?" as I was arriving at the UAW conference center in northern Michigan. Back then, I was a steelworker and a soon-to-graduate student, and he was UAW vice president in charge of the union's Chrysler department.

A few years later, as a reporter, I met Doug Fraser again when I interviewed him at the union's Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit. Whenever I spoke with him, I was struck by his focus and straightforward approach to serving his union and its members.

Through the years, Doug Fraser was a good guy to know. Even after he retired from the UAW, he remained engaged and well-connected, teaching at the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit.

History lesson

Five years ago, when the legacy costs of pensions and retiree health care became a hot topic, I invited Doug to share his views on the subject. A half-century earlier, he had been part of the UAW bargaining team that had negotiated the pension and health care benefits being criticized, so he had a unique perspective.

He didn't disappoint. In an op-ed piece published Oct. 6, 2003, in Automotive News, Fraser gave a little history lesson that explained the rationale behind what he and his contemporaries had done. He also reasoned that UAW retirees had earned their legacy.

You may not have agreed with Doug Fraser's politics or his socioeconomic view of the world, but you could never question his honesty or determination. At age 91, he still believed as fervently in the same things that he did as a young man taking part in sit-down strikes at Chrysler's old DeSoto factory.

He did what he believed was right. Always.

And he lived up to Reuther's expectations.

Doug Fraser was a good guy to have known.

You can reach Edward Lapham at elapham@crain.com

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