May 13, 2005

Today in Automotive History 1980

Today in Automotive History

1980 Union On The Board

Douglas A. Fraser, president of the UAW, was named to the Chrysler Corporation Board of Directors, becoming the first union representative ever to sit on the board of a major U.S. corporation.

Born in 1916 in Glasgow, Scotland, to a Socialist father, Fraser was brought up to the tune of organized labor. He dropped out of high school and began work at a Dodge plant as a metal polisher. Fraser soon moved to the DeSoto plant in Detroit, where he began his career in labor activism.

Rising through the ranks of his local UAW chapter, Fraser eventually caught the eye of powerful UAW figure Walter Reuther(ed note: remember this communist from the other day). Reuther's similar immigrant and Socialist background meant that the two men shared ideas in common. Fraser worked as Reuther's administrative assistant through the groundbreaking years of the 1950s, during which the UAW solidified policies on retirement pensions and medical care for its members. Like Reuther, Fraser believed that to achieve its goals the UAW needed to be willing to make reasonable compromises. It wasn't until 1977 that Fraser was elected president of the UAW.

He inherited the title as the automotive industry suffered its greatest recession since the Depression. Fraser is credited with having led the UAW through the uncertain years of the globalization of the automotive industry. As it became evident that the Big Three could build their cars wherever they wanted, Fraser fought to make sure that the union stayed flexible in its negotiations with industry executives. His detractors sometimes accused Fraser of pandering, but those who knew him described him as a stern proponent of international labor causes. His flexibility owed to his desire to keep the union an open-minded and competitive organization.

The New York Times described Fraser as "an extremely tough-minded unionist, like most who rise through the ferocious fighting that can characterize union politics." In 1973, Fraser helped to solidify the industry's "thirty and out" policy. During his presidency, Fraser attempted to address the less tangible hardships facing autoworkers. Gone were the days of unfair hours and dangerous conditions, but the monotony that faced the average autoworker was still a cross to bear.

In 1982, Fraser enacted his most daring and visionary maneuver as UAW president. Faced with Chrysler's imminent collapse, Fraser negotiated away millions of dollars already guaranteed to his union in order to help save a company with valuable jobs. In return, Chrysler traded stock options to the union. The resurgence of Chrysler bore out Fraser's unpopular decision. Respected by his adversaries, Fraser received the unprecedented accolade of being named to Chrysler's board. "His word is enough for us," one Chrysler executive explained. "He gets into plant problems like no other union leader I know." Conceding that his position on Chrysler's board was largely symbolic, Fraser nevertheless strove to bring the issues of the laborer into the boardroom. It is one thing to vote to close a plant on paper and quite another to vote after hearing in detail the hardship the decision will cause. Douglas Fraser was a proud and unselfish leader who must be remembered for maintaining his ideals, even after his prosperity made them unnecessary.

Posted by Quality Weenie at May 13, 2005 07:08 AM