A Deal-Making Union Man: Douglas Fraser

Former United Auto Workers head Douglas Fraser has died at 91. He was known as a skillful negotiator who led the UAW during difficult times for the U.S. auto industry in the 1970s and '80s. Unlike many union leaders, Fraser was also known for being accessible and easy-going.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Douglas Fraser, the former head of the United Auto Workers, has died. Fraser led the union in the late 1970s and early '80s. At the time, he was credited with helping save Chrysler. And as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, in the bare-knuckle world of labor negotiating, Fraser is also remembered for being unusually good- natured.

FARNK LANGFITT: I met Doug Fraser - everyone knew him as Doug - at his modest townhouse in suburban Detroit last summer. The United Auto Workers were starting contract talks with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. No current union officials would talk to reporters. But Fraser made time.

He greeted me at the door with his oxygen tank in tow. He was entering his 10th decade and suffering from emphysema. But he was still cheerful. We sat at his kitchen table and talked for an hour. He answered most every question. At one point, I asked what contract talks are really like.

M: It is a great deal of profanity. It always starts with blow-ups, pounding on the table. One of the things I remember is pick up all your notes and everything, stuff it in your briefcase as though you're going to walk out and then nothing happens. You had to take that stuff out of your briefcase again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANGFITT: Fraser could be tough like that at times. But those who knew him say he was the mostly easy-going.

Gerald Meyers is the former head of American Motors Corporation. Over the years, he argued with Fraser on everything from pensions to overtime.

M: We never felt the hard edge. Everything he said and everything he did was velvet and was pleasant. And with other labor negotiators, it was God-awful.

LANGFITT: Throughout his career, Fraser fought for better wages and benefits for his members. But he may be best remembered for helping save Chrysler from bankruptcy. Chrysler head Lee Iacocca persuaded the federal government to give the company loan guarantees. But Fraser's role was critical. He convinced his members to take temporary wage cuts to show the government that they were doing their part to keep the company afloat.

Gerald Meyers says that made a big difference.

M: It could not have gotten a loan guarantee without labor making the concessions that Doug arranged.

LANGFITT: Such cuts were unheard of in the middle of a contract. Fraser recalled how unhappy members were in an interview with NPR's Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAST INTERVIEW)

M: And I remember in Chrysler, and then '79 and '80 and '81 where we had to make these horrible sacrifices in terms of wages and pensions because Chrysler was on the brink of bankruptcy. When we made those agreements, there wasn't a very - there's a feeling of depression, is what it was.

LANGFITT: But Chrysler survived, and many union workers kept their jobs. In the following decades, both the auto industry and the labor movement have struggled. But true to form, Fraser remained optimistic. Here he is talking with NPR in 1997.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAST INTERVIEW)

M: The labor movement - the whole movement - it's a constant struggle. It's a never-ending struggle. And you have to view it that way. And if you rest on your horse, then you're going to witness a demise of the labor movement prior to the - I can't see that happening.

LANGFITT: Douglas Fraser died late Saturday night. He was 91 years old.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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