Douglas Fraser

Labor In America

VTR Date: November 11, 1982

Guest: Fraser, Douglas


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Douglas Fraser
Title: “Labor in America”
VTR: 11/11/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Nearly 20 years ago, at a businessman’s executive seminar in Aspen, Colorado, I met and worked with a union official who later was to become head of one of the most powerful industrial labor unions in the world. Now he’s about to retire as President of the United Auto Workers of America. And finally I’ve gotten Douglas Fraser to sit here with me on THE OPEN MIND, just as his predecessor, Walter Reuther once did in the frankest discussion I’ve ever enjoyed.

Doug, thanks for joining me here.

FRASER: It’s nice being here.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s sad that with your retirement there comes to an end an era in American labor. Is that a fair statement?

FRASER: No, I don’t accept that. I know many people say that unless you experienced the Depression, perhaps as a teenager in my age category, or unless you were active in the early organizational days when there was no rewards or sacrifices, unless you had those experiences you cannot have the same sense of commitment and dedication. But I think commitment and dedication is an intellectual development. And so I believe that the people who follow me will be as committed and as dedicated to the principles for which the UAW stands.

HEFFNER: Yet, you know, I noticed in a biography of Doug Fraser, there was this wonderful quotation, “Says Fraser, ‘I’m glad I was raised during the Depression. I’ll never forget learning about people having to buy their jobs or seeing my father’s frustration in not being able to work’”. That really, isn’t that really the basis for what it is you felt about unionism?

FRASER: Yeah, it was a searing experience, you know. Now the terrible times we’re experiencing in the auto industry once more. The worst since those days. And you know, I can empathize with the people who are unemployed because I was unemployed, laid off for 11 consecutive months in 1938. And it was such a searing and unforgettable experience. I recall as though it were yesterday.

HEFFNER: Then how are those who are going to follow you, not just in the UAW but in any union, possibly going to match up to what you felt?

FRASER: Well, because I really do believe that there is really two ways you become educated, with experience, and I think you can get the same grasp and the same feeling, you know, as I said before, as an intellectual development. You know, if you have the basic compassion and understand people and feel for those that are laid off, I think you can develop the same feeling, I really do. I think it was easier for me because I went through this experience, and I can tell you it was lasting. I can still remember it today.

HEFFNER: What about the people on the other side? What about the labor union members? What about those who need to be organized? Do you think they’ve forgotten somewhat what it means to be quite so downtrodden? Are they as enthusiastic today about union solidarity as they once were?

FRASER: Oh, I think they were sort of blasé until, in the auto industry once more until ’79 when the layoffs hit us. But now I think there’s a full realization of what it means to be ready, willing, and able and anxious to work and not finding employment. It’s a totally, it’s a learning experience for this new generation. And I happen to believe that again it will be a lesson that we will not soon forget.

HEFFNER: What’s happened in the last few years, you mean.

FRASER: Right.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication though, in terms of a strong union feeling, in terms of that solidarity forever feeling that I remember from the ‘30s, can you find that again now?

FRASER: Well, it is different now, because first of all, the membership is better educated and more challenging. You know, we’re sort of a microcosm of our total society. People question decisions more, challenge more and dissent more. But I would argue, you know, in the days when I was a steward and a committeeman in the plant, the workers had sort of visceral reactions. They would run up against that wall and they wouldn’t ask you why, they’d just, “Let’s do it”. But I think if someone, through an intellectual process, accepts the union movement for which it stands, then in the long haul I think you have perhaps a stronger union and one that can make a greater contribution.

HEFFNER: Why do you way, “Make a greater contribution?”

FRASER: Well, because I believe they’ll have a broader understanding. They’ll realize that it’s so important to become involved in the political process of our nation, that many of the decisions that we used to make at the bargaining table, and you can no longer control your destiny at the bargaining table the way you once did, and you’re going to have to become more involved in the political arena. And I think the newer people and the younger people sort of grasp that better than some of the previous workers in our industry.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re suggesting then, I gather, that unions today essentially are means of channeling enthusiasm or support or feeling into political action rather than into economic action.

FRASER: Yes, I think that’s where we inevitably must go. Let me give you an example in the auto industry. We have an – and this is true in other industries – at the collective bargaining table trying to get a grip on this monster called hospital/medical costs. There’s no way you can deal with that at the bargaining table; cost containment and all the things that we must do. And the only way you could solve that problems of health care for workers, in my view, is through national health insurance, as they have in every other democracy in the world except our own. That kind of choice. And I think more and more workers are becoming convinced that that is the road to travel.

HEFFNER: And that can come only through political action.

FRASER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: What does that lead you to believe about the possibility that there may be someday a labor party as we once used to think?

FRASER: I think, and I think it’s going to be down the road quite a bit, but I would guess that if the frustration of the American people increases as it relates to the two major parties, then there will be a possibility of a third party, whether it be a labor party or some other name. But I think the cynicism about the two political parties is increasing. And if that, if they keep increasing, that feeling keeps increasing, then I think it’s a possibility of people looking for alternatives.

HEFFNER: Doug, on the other program I do, “From the Editor’s Desk”, and you were a guest there, sometime back, we had other labor leaders, and one of the questions that has come up is one, in s a sense, that has been posed elsewhere by Ralph Nader: who cares, when you’re talking about labor unions, what difference does it make in terms of their political power or what else? Do you take exception to that notion that unions just don’t count quite so much anymore?

FRASER: No, I don’t. The fact of the matter is I see signs just in the last couple of years of resurgence of interest in political activity. I would venture to say that perhaps the AFL-CIO is, their political apparatus is probably better today then maybe it’s ever been. And this comes about through adversity again. It’s because of our experience in the last couple of years that the organization itself is more intensely involved in political action. Hopefully we can bring the membership along. So I wouldn’t accept that. Now, I think there was a time when times were good and we had relatively full employment, I think that was the case. But now that we’re again faced with this, you know, this tremendous problem of unemployment, I can see a shift taking place.

HEFFNER: What about in 1980 though? There you weren’t terribly effective, it seems to me.

FRASER: Well, I think in 1980 two things happened. First of all, the American people, including the members of unions, viewed the government as performing at a level somewhat short of excellence, to put it mildly, number one. Number two, I think there was something happening out there, and it happened to our members, that they said, “Well, we really are paying too much of our wages in taxes. And part of the reason is the social programs that are mismanaged and there is a lot of abuses and a lot of thievery, and the programs just should be abandoned and save us the tax money”. I think that was happening out there in 1980.

HEFFNER: About the…go ahead.

FRASER: Well, I was just going to say, you know, I could recall some of our members saying, you know, they line up in the checkout counter and they see what they perceive to be abuses in the food stamp program and voted for Ronald Reagan because of those abuses. Well, now they’re receiving them, and that changes one’s perspective.

HEFFNER: Do you think it has to do too with perhaps a large segment of the working class having been co-opted into the middle class?

FRASER: That’s there. That is there, yes. And I thin that was present in 1980 and even before.

HEFFNER: Then what about the future? Isn’t that going to happen more and more and more, meaning less and less powerful, politically powerful unions?

FRASER: I think that would be the case if everything remained constant. But you look at our nation now, you know, 10.4 percent unemployment, 11.5 million people, another 1,600,000 discouraged workers who aren’t counted in that figure because they’ve just given up looking for jobs. Another 6.6 million who are working short hours who want to work full time. You know, you’re talking about 19.5 million American people who are, many of them, suffering for the first time complete unemployment or limited unemployment. And so I view, I’m must optimistic about it, because about for, you know, I just don’t like to see them being educated by hard times. But I think that nevertheless is happening.

HEFFNER: But you’re saying then too, I guess, that the ideological basis for successful unionism really isn’t so much there. Maybe it comes at a certain point as a threshold, a threshold of pain.

FRASER: I would concede that. I could concede that the labor movement, and I would say the same thing is happening in the political party, are less ideological today than they were in the 30s and 40s.

HEFFNER: What about the size of unions today? I mean, your own union has gone down, down, down. By the way, that leads me, a question that I did want to ask you is how you, as a member of the Chrysler Corporation Board of Directors, how you feel about management of an industry that has declined so – and I’m talking about the industry – that has lost so many employees over the past few years? What do you think about the management of such an industry?

FRASER: Oh, I think terrible mistakes were made in the auto industry. You know, we should have been designing and engineering small cars long before we did. And the auto industry, the leaders of the auto industry were a very, very arrogant group of men. And they just thought they could dictate to the American public the style and the type of car and the size of car they wanted. And they just didn’t believe they could make any mistakes at all. And it’s interesting thing what’s happening to that group now. They’ve got, as they should, they have these self-doubts that they’ve never had before. They’re just not as cocky as they used to be. In fact, some of them are beginning to wonder if they’re ever going to make a right decision again. They’ve been guessing wrong now for the last two and a half years. And they’ve gone through a transformation. But it was an industry that was extremely arrogant, and I suppose it was based upon the fact that they were successful for a very long period of time.

HEFFNER: And such a major industry in this country, too.

FRASER: Oh, it’s so important to, you know, in the industrial base of our nation. We consume 23 percent of all the steel produced in the United States, 40 percent of the malleable iron, 60 percent of synthetic rubber, 14 percent of the primary aluminum, and on and on and on. And it is different then most because it is so important and so many people are dependent upon a health and auto industry.

HEFFNER: Doug, I’m interested in knowing where you stood and how you stood during the height of the environmental crusades. There were those who said that Detroit made Americans, young Americans feel as they grew up that driving a car was a birthright, that the automobile was an extension of the human body, and that that was negative in terms of environmental concerns. Where did you stand then, and where do you stand now on that matter?

FRASER: Well, we were supportive. First of all, we were supportive of fuel efficiency legislation that’s now in place. And this year it’s 24 miles per gallon fleet average by, mandated. We are supportive of that; the industry is opposed to it. On the emission regulations, we pushed the industry further than they wanted to be pushed, but eventually we got together on a compromise. Now, we did not pretend to have the expertise to make a judgment of the proper level of nox or carbon monoxide or hydrocarbons, any of that. And so we retained the services of the Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, a renowned expert in emissions, Dean Rigoni. And he counseled us. And we based our political decision based upon his evaluation. So, for those who charge that we copped out, we did not. We went along with levels of the auto industry didn’t want, but when they saw they could get a lot worse, they joined us. And I think, I don’t think there’s any question about it that that legislation, no matter how the auto industry complains about it, that legislation, I believe, has markedly improved the quality of the air that we all have to breathe. There’s no question. We’ve reduced, you know, emissions by 80 percent in some categories. The tough one is nox. We’ve only reduced that by 40 percent. It’s really just hard to manage.

HEFFNER: Of course, that opens the door to another question as to how you feel, what you feel should be the role of a labor union leader and a labor union in terms of social issues, larger social issues. Now, I know how you feel about health insurance, because that’s something you said you can’t negotiate at the table; that has to be a national concern.

FRASER: Well, I think you have a duty, an obligation, responsibility to become involved in all the issues of the day. And there’s no question that sometimes you run up against an issue that might represent, you know, a conflict, because you have to always be, unless you’re not going to be leading for long, you have to be sensitive to the mood and the feelings of your membership. Not when it comes down to basic principle, for example, civil rights. We used to march with Martin Luther King. The members, our dear members in the South took a very dim view of us. But I mean, other than where it jeopardizes workers’ jobs, we really have to be careful. I don’t care what anyone says, that I think you have a responsibility and an obligation to view carefully and advocate and agitate for social change.

HEFFNER: What did you feel your obligation was in terms of those you call “your dear members in the South” in the time of the Civil Rights Movement?

FRASER: Well, we thought the issue was so clear-cut and overwhelming and so crucial to a democratic society, we took a lot of abuse from our members but we did it.

HEFFNER: Are there other issues like that?

FRASER: Busing is an issue like that. The leadership was, you know, in a small minority. Our members, particularly those in the suburbs of Detroit who were bitterly opposed to our stand in that area. The fact of the matter is you will recall that George Wallace came into the State of Michigan and took the state away from us. And we knew it. But I guess you have to raise a question of what is a role of a leader.

HEFFNER: That’s what I’m asking you. What is the role?

FRASER: Well, the role of a leader is to lead, and you have to take some chances and you have to take some risks, because we do govern with the consent of the governed. That also means that you have to take stands on unpopular causes. I suppose if you take too many of them you will be turned out of office. But not to do it, you have to live with your conscience. And I think the role of a leader is to make judgments on important issues, particularly social issues, particularly principled issues. I think you have to take a stand even when your membership is opposed to it. Otherwise, what you do, it seems to me, is cater and pander to prejudice.

HEFFNER: But in doing so you are representing at times the opinions of your own members. And you are their chieftain.

FRASER: Then you’re at odds with it, and I think that’s always a conflict in a democratic society, in a representative form of government. And that’s really what we have in the union. And you do govern with the consent of the governed. And if they’re unhappy with all of the decisions you make, you get turned out of office. And that’s a risk you have to take. But you see, I don’t think you can always go along with the popular will, not in a representative government. I just don’t believe that’s true democracy. I don’t believe that’s what representative government is about. I wish more people in Congress would take that view, incidentally.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but I’ve heard you say that when it comes to the next presidential election, talking about the role that labor will play, officially play in picking a candidate, let’s say, among the Democrats, what you’ve said on “From the Editor’s Desk”, is that you want to be careful not to precede the primaries too far. You don’t want to knock someone out before he’s had a chance to speak for himself. Yet you know who you’re going to want to, you will know who it is you want to identify as your candidate. What difference does it make then in terms of what you’ve just said?

FRASER: Well, first of all, I disagree vehemently with the process by which we pick our political leaders. Now, I think primaries, about 13, 14, 15 primaries away, I think, in 1960, when John Kennedy was nominated, we had about 13, 14 primaries. And the primaries were very important to him because he could not have gotten the nomination without the primaries, because you remember Wisconsin and West Virginia.

HEFFNER: Indeed.

FRASER: But the decision was made by the party leaders in convention. He was just proving to the party leaders that he could generate support particularly in a Protestant state like West Virginia.

HEFFNER: But if he hadn’t won those primaries he wouldn’t have gotten that nod, would he?

FRASER: Exactly. But it was dependent upon a selective poll of the membership, not the mass kind of poll that we do now. I think it’s disastrous. Well, let me be blunt about it. Primaries give you the Jimmy Carters as the party leaders. He’s a product of that system. And if you go back in our time, the old system gave you Roosevelt four times, gave you Truman, gave you Adlai Stevenson twice. He didn’t get elected, but we had, I think, a credible candidate. Then it gave you John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson in his best years before Vietnam. So I think that system without, absent the primaries, really gave us some outstanding leaders. Then we changed the system after ’68, after Hubert Humphrey was nominated, and we got McGovern, and Carter. And we didn’t do that well.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m interested, as you go through the list, Roosevelt and Harry Truman and on with Stevenson who wasn‘t elected and Jack Kennedy, etcetera, and you’re pleased by that list. Who today on the political horizon looks to you like one of those?

FRASER: Oh, I think Fritz Mondale or Kennedy would fit in that mold. I’m sure there are others, perhaps some of the younger senators. I really thought we lost a great group when we lost the John Culvers and the Birch Bayhs and that whole raft of senators that we lost that I thought were outstanding. I thought the Democratic Party, we had a select group from which to pick. It’s a little narrower now. And I don’t dismiss Gary Hart or Paul Tsongas or Bill Bradley from New Jersey. I was involved with him in a mini-convention and I was very, very impressed with him.

HEFFNER: The primary process will take place whether you and I think it’s good, bad, or indifferent. When it’s over, what precisely will labor do? Pick a person?

FRASER: Well, the idea now is to at least explore the possibility of picking before the primary so that the can influence the primaries. Now, a lot of people didn’t pay that much attention to the work of the Hunck Commission. I served on that commission, and we greatly reduced the power of the primaries, where more the delegates will be in fact the party leaders. The fact of the matter is three-fifths, I think, is the number, of the members of Congress will be uncommitted delegates. And I’m for that for a couple of reasons. They’re not elected by a primary, number one, and I am for getting them involved in the political process. They run away from it. They’re frightened of it. And they haven‘t been involved in recent years. Now we’re going to get them back in the process, make them make political decisions as they should, become political leaders, not only the representatives of the people on the floor of the Congress.

HEFFNER: How do you make them do that?

FRASER: Well, the agreement is made that three-fifths of their number will be selected as delegates at the next Democratic Party convention, and they will go uncommitted. And I think that’s good for the process and that’s good for them.

HEFFNER: Doug Fraser, you’re retiring soon. Are you going to retire from that kind of activity too?

FRASER: Oh, I couldn’t. No, I couldn’t. I am so deeply involved in the political process and in fact I might even have more time for it.

HEFFNER: I was wondering before, you say now you might even have more time for it, thinking about the nature of union leadership, thinking about your predecessor, Walter Reuther, wondering who were, in your estimation, the greatest of the union leaders?

FRASER: Walter.

HEFFNER: Walther Reuther was?

FRASER: I was an administrative assistant for eight years, and I don’t toss around the world loosely, “genius”, but I think Walter was close to being one. He’s innovative, he had compassion, he could move people, he could rally people. And you know, people say, well, John L. Lewis. John L. Lewis was a reactionary for most of his life. I think he did great things for the mine workers in many negotiations, but I don’t put him on the same level as Walter Reuther, nor would I put George Meany in that category.

HEFFNER: Do you, you know, going back full circle to the beginning of the program, you said intellectually, without the experience of, the searing experience that you had and that I had by living through the 30s, you will develop, labor will develop the same kind or a parallel kind of strong leadership. Who are those strong leaders? Let’s take it outside of your own union now.

FRASER: Oh, I think Bill Wynn for food and commercial workers. And there’s people in the vice president’s position in the machinists’ union and the teachers’ union, NEA. I think there’s great potential out there. You see, just to get back to the other point, you know, I argue this, I was involved with the McCarthy kids, and the kids, the protestors in Vietnam. And that was a learning experience. And they developed the sort of same kind of philosophical views that we had in the labor movement. There’s different ways, I think, you know, to develop philosophically and intellectually. And so I’m fairly, you know, I’m fairly optimistic about the future and the future leadership.

HEFFNER: Yes, but if I remember the anti-war protests, there were then the hardhats who were protesting against the protestors, and labor didn’t have the kind of record that you’re hinting at at the time of the Vietnam protests.

FRASER: They sure didn’t. They sure didn’t. And admittedly our union in the early days of Vietnam, as a great many Americans, in fact, you know, Bobby Kennedy, you name it, they were really supportive or our effort in Vietnam originally. But our union changed and about 1965 we had almost mad a complete change in 1966. But you’re right. I thought it was absolutely disgraceful beating up those kids. And those were horrible scenes. And there’s a lot of things that I’m not proud of the lab or movement for, incidents that take place, stands that they take that I don’t want to be associated with.

HEFFNER: Doug, in the minute we have remaining, what do you see as the future now of the labor union movement in this country in those terms and in others? Just very generally, what do you think is going to happen?

FRASER: I really believe the labor movement is going to remain as a progressive force in our society, and I think the number of institutions that are willing to speak up for, to use the old term, the downtrodden and the dispossessed and so forth, I think the lab or movement can still say that they are really the leaders, the spokesperson for that group in our society, for civil rights and all of the very essential programs and principles which are absolutely, you know, necessary. And I think t he labor movement is far and away the most important institution.

HEFFNER: Doug Fraser, thanks so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.