Douglas A. Fraser, Former UAW President, Dies at 91

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Douglas A. Fraser 1916-2008

By DAVID RUNK - Sunday, February 24, 2008 5:45 PM EST

DETROIT - Douglas A. Fraser, who led the United Auto Workers union through dark hours in the U.S. auto industry in the 1970s and '80s, has died. He was 91.

Fraser died late Saturday at Providence Hospital in Southfield, his wife, Winnie, said Sunday. She said he had emphysema and went into the hospital with breathing problems, but a cause of death wasn't determined.

With his mischievous smile and gregarious, easygoing manner, Fraser was popular with the union's rank-and-file, who appreciated his candor and accessibility. Everyone called him Doug. "Everybody thought he was wonderful," Winnie Fraser said. "He was a good guy, and he really was (wonderful)." He also was a shrewd and pragmatic negotiator who won the respect of Big Three executives. In the 1960s and '70s, he helped win such benefits as comprehensive health care and improved working conditions. But he faced challenges as UAW president from 1977 to 1983, a period of severe financial hardship for the industry that forced the union to make unprecedented concessions.

"Doug was a friend, a mentor and a counselor to so many within the UAW and the larger labor movement," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said in a statement. "His integrity and his enduring commitment to protecting the rights of workers will continue to inspire us." Fraser considered his finest achievement the UAW's campaign to obtain $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for Chrysler Corp. in 1979, which saved the automaker from bankruptcy. "At the time, he was probably the most respected labor leader in America and he had great political charm, as well as substantive commitment," said former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, who knew Fraser for more than 30 years and as a U.S. House member worked with Fraser on the efforts to guarantee Chrysler's loans.

"He was really key in everything that happened to save Chrysler."

Fraser's decisions to give contract concessions to Chrysler in 1979 and to Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. in 1982 were opposed by many UAW members but contributed to the U.S. auto industry's recovery.

As part of the agreement for concessions, Chrysler gave Fraser a seat on its board, making him the first major union chief on the board of a large corporation. He donated his board salary to Wayne State University in Detroit.

A lifelong Democrat, Fraser proudly called himself a liberal. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. He supported school busing to achieve racial integration, a position strongly opposed by many of his fellow UAW members. He pushed an often reluctant UAW and the Big Three to recruit more minorities and women. And he fought for national health insurance.

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