Douglas Fraser

Is America Working?

VTR Date: February 7, 1987

Guest: Fraser, Douglas


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Douglas Fraser
Title: “Is America Working?”
VTR: 2/7/87

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Our title today, “Is America Working?” is much more than a rhetorical question or a play upon words. It reflects, indeed, the deepest concerns larger and larger numbers of economists, sociologists, psychologists, moral philosophers and other professionals have expressed recently…concerns that are shared by so many of the rest of us who only viscerally sense that something has changed, that something is wrong, something isn’t working. Maybe we aren’t. Maybe we simply don’t want to work anymore, don’t feel the need to. And when we don’t work, America doesn’t, couldn’t possibly.

But this is, of course, a recurring theme in public discourse these days…reflected, too, in our own viewers response when OPEN MIND guests have included people like David Halberstam, whose book The Reckoning, negatively contrasted Japan’s work habits with our own…and Pehr Gyllenhammar, the Swedish head of Volvo, who insists that humanizing the work environment can work, would be productive.

Well, here in THE OPEN MIND and in his book, David Halberstam referred generously to a key American labor leader he so obviously admires. So do I. So that today, I’ve asked Douglas Fraser to join us once again. Last time he was just about to retire as President of the United Automobile Workers…and I’ve missed this distinguished labor leader’s down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to such questions as ours today: Is America Working?

First, however, I want to remind my guest of Halberstam’s account in The Reckoning of Fraser’s own Japan visit to Ishihara, the Nissan chieftain, who said to him: “Your problem in America is of your own making. It is your work force – it is your whole American system. Nobody wants to work”. So, Doug Fraser, that’s as good a place as any to begin. What about that statement?

Fraser: Well, I think the great difficulty in America there’s so many people that want to work that can’t work. They can’t work because they’ve lost their job or they’ve lost jobs that were at a relatively high wage rate that produced a high standard of living for themselves and their families. So, I don’t think it’s a question of wanting to work, it’s a question of really having the opportunity…you’re, you’re going to see tens of thousands of auto workers in the near future who want desperately to stay in the auto industry that aren’t able to.

Heffner: Well, now, when he said that to you, do you think there was any truth to it?

Fraser: Well, at the point I was talking to Ishihara, I think what happened in the latter part of the seventies, and this was the time I was visiting with Ishihara, I think in terms of not only the auto, but industry, we were sloppy, we were careless, and we were producing cars of poor quality. That has changed. It has changed markedly. The automobiles we’re producing today are much, much better than those that we produced in the latter part of the seventies. Now I’m not trying to say it represents perfection, but a vast improvement over what we did.

Heffner: But look, Doug, we’ve known each other for a long time now. Since Aspen in the sixties. It’s a political statement and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. But it’s a political statement to say, as you did, we’re talking about…and economic hard facts, to say that our major concern is the men who want to work and can’t work, can’t find jobs. If we set that aside and go back to attitudes. In the Halberstam book, I mean he, he quotes Douglas Fraser on subjects that relate to an unwillingness on the part of your own union members, at times, in places, to do the kind of work that you would have loved to have taken on.

Fraser: Well, I think what Halberstam was referring to…we’re in a more difficult base. I think there’s been a change in attitude.

Heffner: You do.

Fraser: Yes, even since 1981. And the reason…I’m not claiming that there was a sort of a philosophical, intellectual awakening. It occurred frankly because of the adversity we went through in 1980. We had a depression in the auto industry. We didn’t have a recession, we had a depression. And that causes people to take their jobs more seriously. I believe that the companies got much more interested in quality. The workers obviously became more interested in quality. And I really believe that we’re doing a better job. You know, David Halberstam makes this unfavorable comparison between the Ford Motor Company and Nissan. But look at Ford Motor Company today. Fact of the matter, next week you will see that Ford’s going to report a higher profit than General Motors for the first time since 1924. And they’ve re-designed their cards in evidently an attractive manner to the American consumer. So I think we’ve been moving, and I’m not really making a political statement. I think that, that’s factual.

Heffner: Do you think that’s true in other areas of American life, too, in terms of labor, in terms of work, in terms of attitude towards work?

Fraser: Yes, I do, in many, many cases. Look at the steel worker settlements. That, that’s a good point to start. And agreements with LTV, with National, with Bethlehem, the recent settlement with U.S.X. that provides for gain sharings. Another word, I think for profit sharing. It provides for a substantial reduction in wages in an effort to be more competitive. And I’m pleasantly surprised at some of the activities of the building trades who have all these work habits that people complained about. But I see in many areas of the country, it’s not uniform, many areas of the country building trades say, “Look, we’ve got to be more competitive”. Of course, they’re now threatened because of the non-union contractors. So I think tremendous change is taking place.

Heffner: And you think adversity has been the mother of this invention.

Fraser: Yeah, I think so. But I, you know, I don’t know if it’s too important how we came to this awakening. It happened.

Heffner: Well, wait a minute. You say it’s not too important how we came to it. But if you take individuals who didn’t experience this adversity, who are in fields of work, in industries in other fields of work where there has not been that adversity, then I guess the question has to be, has the attitude towards work changed?

Fraser: Well, I suppose that people who didn’t have this adversity, you can continue your old habits, whether they be good or bad. I’m not saying they’re all bad, but I think just…if everybody’s comfortable and companies are profitable, I think you continue your habits, whatever they may be.

Heffner: Do you think we’re going to get out of the present fix without protectionism? More protectionism?

Fraser: I doubt is seriously. Although I would question whether we have any degree of protectionism at all meaningful. Oh, you got a few items like sugar, and so forth. Nothing compared with the rest of the world. This is the most open market in the entire world, despite our fences of protectionism here and there. But it’s not widespread, as it is in Japan and other places in the world.

Heffner: Do you want it to stay that open, Doug?

Fraser: Well, philosophically I suppose, I’m a free trader. But there’s so much unfairness in our trade relationship with Japan and other countries. But Japan principally because that’s where we have our biggest trade deficit. I think we have to get equity. I think we have to get more fairness, and we have to get reciprocity.

Heffner: Do you think that will come without protectionism?

Fraser: Well I think it’s probably another name. If you say that we demand of Japan to open your markets in the same fashion that our markets are open, “or else we’re going to reciprocate”, if that’s protectionism, then, then so be it.

Heffner: What happened to that 1930s liberalism that looked askance at that kind of negotiation, if I may call it that?

Fraser: I think it’s a different world. I think the world is changing and we have to change with it. Se, you take auto and I don’t think it’s going to be critical this year at all, because I don’t think the Japanese can sell two million three hundred thousand cars in the current market. That’s their ceiling. And…so that really, I think it’s academic, but let me point out the unfairness even to that arrangement. England says to the Japanese, “No more than eleven percent to this market”, Germany says, “No more than ten percent of this market” to the Japanese. France says, “No more than three percent to this market”, and Italy, they don’t want to bother with percentages, they say, “No more than two thousand cars”, Canada, fifteen percent. Only in this country can they grab twenty-five, twenty-six percent to the market. And obviously with the barriers up in the other countries, because that market is closed to them, why the cars will flow into this country. So that there’s all this unfairness. In a perfect world, in the perfect world I suppose there’d be no trade barriers.

Heffner: Do you think that the automotive need for this kind of protection will begin a process, strike that…not begin a process, foster a process that then will be accelerated in other areas of the economy, too?

Fraser: No, I don’t believe so because…

Heffner: Just automobiles?

Fraser: I’m just talking automobiles.

Heffner: Yeah, I know you’re talking about them. But, but what’s your guess as to what will happen?

Fraser: Well, let me say, first of all, I think in automobiles we’re going to be able to compete with the Japanese because the yen had finally strengthened as it should have against, against the dollar. We’re price comparative…I don’t know about this area, but many areas of the country, for the first time, you’re seeing dealers of Japanese built cars offering discounts. They used to try to stick you for over the sticker price but…I think you’re going to see, from this Congress, you’re going to see trade legislation, which a lot of people will call protectionism. But it will be more demanding or our trading partners. I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think the only open question is, “What form is it going to take?”, and how much the administration will accept without threatening a veto.

Heffner: So you approve of it in the area of the automotive industry?

Fraser: Well, I think it’s academic to the auto industry. Because, I think as I say, we are price competitive with the Japanese. Secondly, the meeting with Ishihara that you referred to, I was saying to him and this is back in, in 1978, I said to him the way to avoid protectionism is put some capital where your market is and create some jobs where your sales are. And now we have Toyota in California, there’s Mazda in Michigan, we have Toyota building a new plant in Kentucky, Nissan in Tennessee, Honda in Marysville, Ohio, and so all the companies are coming…you’re creating jobs for Americans and that’s what I advocated.

Heffner: I remember in that passage in the Halberstam book, when he said that to you, the quote that I read from before, your response very soon after that, was that he, and I presume you meant other Japanese industrial leaders couldn’t understand for the life of them what democratic society was all about, they couldn’t live in a free country such as our own and that their attitudes toward labor were a function of their failure to understand what free labor meant. Would you still…

Fraser: Yes. I really question whether or not the, at that point or for that matter Nissan still understands free democratic trade unionism. At least in the Western democracies’ sense. I would think progress is being made because when Toyota had the merger with General Motors Freemont, California plant, what we call NUMMI, New United Motors Manufacturing Incorporated. And Toyota was very, very suspicious of whether or not they could live with the American union. Well, I was still President and we were able to negotiate because GM was the partner. We were able to negotiate a recognition provision and now Toyota, I’m sure, is pleased with that arrangement out there. It’s been a spectacular success. And I don’t think Toyota will resist us, when they build the plant in Georgetown, Kentucky.

Heffner: Alright. Forget the Japanese for a moment. What about labor in our own country, dealing with our own manufacturers, not just in the automotive industry. How fares, how goes, American labor?

Fraser: Well, when I look around and see what’s happening in the communication industry, we haven’t talked about that. That union is moving toward what we call quality work-life program. These are efforts to democratize a work place, to give the workers a more meaningful voice in the way their jobs are organized. The steel workers are moving in that direction. We have moved in that direction. And I think you’re going to see other unions and companies, of course, because one side can’t impose it on the other. You have to jointly agree to this new approach of labor management relations.

Heffner: But, Doug, while you speak about that, the press remains filled with negative comments about the lot of labor. That labor strength, organized labor strength is diminishing. Is that a fair statement?

Fraser: Oh, yeah. There’s not question about that. We represent only eighteen percent of the work force. And we still represent thirty-five percent of the work force when you look at our percentage of the work force organized against other countries…we suffer by that comparison. And I think there’s a lot of reasons for it. We, we lost, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, two million seven hundred thousand manufacturing jobs since 1981, precisely the sector of our economy which is more highly organized. I think we have a hostile administration. I think we have a National Labor Relations Board which is blatantly anti-union and I’m not making this as idle political charge. We compared the decisions of the Reagan NLRB against the decisions of Republican dominated NLRBs and the NLRB of Eisenhower and Ford and Nixon, and this National Labor Relations Board is even over-turning the decisions of those Republican boards. So you have this environment. We badly need in this country labor law reform. It’s out of the question until we change the administration. And I’m not suggesting that we’re blameless. We have a bad image for a variety of reasons. The companies in the United States are the worst anti-union companies in the whole free world. Only in America do you see labor relations firms, so-called labor consultants, whose exclusive mission is to try to keep unions from organizing or destroying unions once organized. You don’t find institutions like that any place in the world.

Heffner: So how do you explain this “only in America” phenomenon?

Fraser: I’ve wondered about that. And I don’t know if it’s our pioneer spirit…and the peculiar thing is you take these same companies, that attack the unions so vigorously in the United States, their behavior is different in Canada. As close as Canada or England or Germany. And the reason, as I suggest it it’s socially unacceptable conduct in any place in the world except America. Now I, I don’t know why it’s acceptable in America and it isn’t in these other countries. I suppose it’s the differences in our societies.

Heffner: Anything to do with leadership? You know, I asked that question on another program I did, not with you, but with a major labor leader. At the end I made some comment about where is Philip Murray, you know, where is John L. Lewis, where is Walter Reuther? And I got my head handed to me because I was supposed to be anti-labor because I raised those questions. But I wonder to what degree is this a function of leadership?

Fraser: Well, I really believe however you define it, the American spirit…the rugged individualism of American society…the pioneer spirit, where corporations and companies resist the unionization. And the companies in the United States, now this term that people use, “employees”, I detest that word. Chrysler workers and GM workers, not GM employees, GM doesn’t own them and Chrysler doesn’t own them and Ford doesn’t own them. And it’s that kind of American attitude that I think is one of the more unpleasant things about our country. And I think this is a wonderful country.

Heffner: Yeah, but, Doug…very seriously, labor’s greatest period of growth came at a time when there was not yet a full maturing of Americans’ involvement in statism. And you talk about our attitude towards laissez-faire, perhaps. My gosh, almost all of us are involved up to our eyeballs in some kind of social program, whether it’s Social Security, or Medicare or Medicaid or whatever it may be. That’s why I don’t understand this response of yours.

Fraser: Well, you know, one, one of our problems politically…let me get back to the question you said based on leadership. Sure there’s, there’s different leadership today. There aren’t any Walter Reuthers around. Philip Murray was a great man. Lewis was a great leader of the miners, but he was reactionary in many, many ways. You know, he supported Herbert Hoover in 1932 and then he deserted Roosevelt in 1944. But in any, any case you have…I could point out leaders and I don’t want to mention their names. They’re gone and buried. Leaders of certain unions in our country where the leadership today is much, much better. More enlightened, broader, more concerned about the total economy and they’re not selfish just about their members. And the other thing, to get to your other point, I think one of our problems is we are viewed as, as we were in the 1984 campaign, as a narrow, selfish economic pressure group.

Heffner: Are you?

Fraser: No. No. I wouldn’t have spent my entire life in the UAW if that’s what we were. The UAW is an instrument for social change. We’re not about just getting an additional ten cents or maybe with inflationary times, twenty-five cents in the pay envelope or an additional fringe benefit. We want to change society and improve society, improve the quality of life, not only for the UAW members, but for all the people.

Heffner: Suppose, Doug, someone were to say, but that’s the trouble, and that’s why labor is in the fix it’s in today?

Fraser: I don’t think it is. If somebody said that, I would accept that because I don’t accept that, I don’t think that’s a criticism. I think that’s a compliment. If you can say that labor is concerned about all, our total society, not only in the United States but the, the whole world. But our, our problem is we’re viewed as just this narrow, economic selfish interest group. That’s the way America views us. And that’s a handicap.

Heffner: You think the old Gompers’ notion of getting simply a bigger piece of the pie is…is an adequate one?

Fraser: Well, you know I see that statement, someone asked Gompers, “What does labor want?” and he says, “We want more”. And I looked back and searched for that statement and I found it. And Gompers says, “Yeah, we want more. We want more school houses and less jails. We want more justice and less revenge”, and he had a whole list of his mores. That was Gompers’ statement. So old Sam Gompers, he wasn’t, I think, quite as narrow as people paint him.

Heffner: Yes, but in 1984, when labor decided long before anyone had been nominated, that it was going to pick its own candidate, nominate its own person, the shoe was on the other foot and it didn’t work. Labor went down, politically down the drain there.

Fraser: Well, I would argue that it did work because Walter Mondale got nominated. And he couldn’t have been nominated without the support of the labor movement. He couldn’t have carried Alabama in the primaries. He couldn’t have carried Georgia. He couldn’t have carried Michigan. I know that well. It’s a caucus state where organized groups have tremendous influence. Now we got battered in the election, but the thing is that if this is such a bad idea, of endorsing a candidate, why did John Glenn, now sitting on the Executive Council, why did John Glenn come to us and ask for the endorsement? Why did Gary Hart come to us and ask for the endorsement? Why did Fritz Hollings and Alan Cranston? They thought it was a hell of a good idea until they didn’t get the endorsement.

Heffner: Yes, but Doug, sure if they’d gotten it, individually would have been fine. The question is how good it was for labor? That’s the question that…

Fraser: Well…

Heffner: …I raise. You nominated your guy…

Fraser: Yeah.

Heffner: …but I gather you wanted to more than nominate a candidate, you wanted to elect one.

Fraser: Well, the 1984 election was over the moment Ronald Reagan decided to throw his hat in the ring and say, “I’m going to run for another term”, it was over. No one could have own under those circumstances. Now, I don’t and I don’t know what they’re going to do in the AFL/CIO. I don’t think it should be premature in endorsing a candidate in 1988. I think it depends upon the circumstances. From my point of view, and it differed from some of the members of the Executive Council, I said I don’t think it’s a good idea to endorse unless, in my view, there’s philosophical differences between the candidates and one candidate is considerably more closer to my philosophical view than the other. Well, in the days when that decision was made, John Glenn was a prominent candidate. Fritz Mondale thought he was a threat. All the polls showed him as being the one closest to Mondale. Some polls showed him ahead in the South. And I saw a difference between Glenn and Mondale. I thought they would behave differently if they were President and that’s why I went for the endorsement. That doesn’t mean I’d do it in ’88.

Heffner: Do you see any behavioral differences among the candidates or would-be candidates or might-be candidates today?

Fraser: Oh, yeah. I think there’s a great difference between Sam Nunn and Mario Cuomo, between Robb and Biden, between any couple of others that I can think of, that…they’re not that prominent enough, but there’s certainly, there’s distinctions that could be made. I think Dukakis and Bradley and Biden and Cuomo are probably very close philosophically, but there’s others that have been mentioned and that I think, you could make a sharp difference.

Heffner: Hasn’t labor made it’s mind up yet as to whether to…

Fraser: No.

Heffner: …or not to endorse before the conventions?

Fraser: No they haven’t. No they haven’t.

Heffner: What would you bet?

Fraser: I think it really depend upon who’s in there. You see what they have done, as I say, requires a two-thirds vote to endorse. And the theory is, what’s the point in endorsing if you’ve only got fifty-two percent, you have to have a really board consensus. We had almost unanimity in 1984.

Heffner: In the, in the High Councils, but not among laborers themselves?

Fraser: Well, no but the unions, the unions polled in different ways. Like the auto workers, we had secret ballot elections in a broad range of our leadership all over the country. I don’t know what’s going to happen this time. I think it would be hard for anyone probably other than Cuomo to garner a two-thirds majority of the Executive Council. Unless, unless, and if I were on the Executive Council and Robb was a strong candidate and you had either Cuomo or Biden or Bradley or Dukakis, I would vote for endorsement.

Heffner: You pleased with the choices before you?

Fraser: I really don’t know who’s before us.

Heffner: Well…

Fraser: You tell me…is it…

Heffner: No. No.

Fraser: Is the Governor of New York a candidate?

Heffner: Well, I ws gong to get him here and ask him that. You know much better about that than I do. But I mean among the ones you mentioned, you pleased with the choice you think you may have?

Fraser: I think I would probably be…well, I’d, I’d b e comfortable with Biden or Bradley and or Dukakis or Cuomo.

Heffner: Any Republican you’d be comfortable with?

Fraser: No. There’s some I’d be more comfortable with than others, but there’s no one that I would vote for.

Heffner: Do you think this means that labor remains a Democratic party instrument? Instrument is too, too harsh a word.

Fraser: Yeah. Yeah, that is. I can’t say.

Heffner: Pick your own word.

Fraser: I cannot see any Republican candidate out there who could win the endorsement of the labor movement. Now let me quickly add, we’ve endorsed Republicans. That’s usually the next question. Mathias of Maryland, we almost endorsed. Javits, we almost endorsed. Case in New Jersey we almost endorsed. Percey of Illinois, we almost endorsed. These are just the senate and I could go on. So it’s not like we’ve shut all the Republicans out. But I don’t think there’s any potential candidate in the Republican Party that would come close to winning an endorsement. I would say the closest one, maybe, is Senator Baker. Former Senator Baker.

Heffner: Doug Fraser, I think at that point I have to say well, we’ll wait until 1988, although…how long before the ’84 election did labor make its choice?

Fraser: Well, we made it in the latter part of ’83.

Heffner: So?

Fraser: And the reason being we had to do it before the primaries if we’re going to field slates of delegates you have to, you have to make the decision before the primary. So I, I would think, that it probably would be about the same time.

Heffner: So I don’t have quite that long to wait.

Fraser: No.

Heffner: Okay. We’ll get back to you, then. Doug Fraser, thanks so much for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s subject, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer, Inc.; The New York Times Company Foundation.