Former United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser, who ushered in a new, more cooperative era between the labor union and Detroit’s auto makers, died Saturday at age 91.

Fraser, who ran the union from 1977 to 1983, was considered its most influential leader, save for Walter Reuther, Fraser’s mentor and the UAW’s founder.

Fraser witnessed up close his share of labor crises over the years, having joined the union in 1936, just shy of his 20th birthday, and participated in the group’s often-violent organizing drives during the Great Depression.

He was elected president of UAW Local 227 in Detroit in 1944, then rose through the ranks. Reuther appointed Fraser his administrative assistant in 1950. He went on to become a co-director of UAW Region 1A and director of the union’s Chrysler Dept. in 1962. Fraser was elected a UAW vice president in 1970.

It was under Fraser that the union agreed to participate in the plan to rescue Chrysler Corp., with workers accepting wage and benefit concessions as part of a $1.5 billion federal loan guarantee program that ignited a financial turnaround for the auto maker under then-CEO Lee A. Iacocca. In return, the UAW was given a seat on Chrysler’s board, which Fraser filled.

The era, plagued by declining market shares for the U.S. Big Three and a corresponding drop in UAW rolls, marked the beginning of a more collaborative relationship between Detroit’s auto makers and the union that culminated in last fall’s historic new contract under current President Ron Gettelfinger.

General Motors Corp. Chairman Rick Wagoner says Fraser “made a very important contribution to the UAW and the auto industry through creative problem-solving and partnership. His passing is a tremendous loss, but his legacy lives on through his innovative thinking, teachings and dedication to the UAW, the U.S. auto industry and the labor movement.”

After retiring, Fraser taught labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit and was a guest lecturer on the subject at a number of other U.S. universities, including Harvard and Notre Dame.

“It’s a huge loss,” Gettelfinger says in a statement. “Doug was a friend, a mentor and a counselor to so many within the UAW and the larger labor movement.

“He never forgot that we were working for our active and retired members,” he adds. “We will continue to draw encouragement from his life and his legacy.”

In a December 2006 interview with Ward’s, Fraser said Detroit earned its reputation for poor quality in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I think we got careless,” he said. “(The industry) started cutting corners and got a bad reputation, which was deserved.

“The only solution is, we’ve got to sell more cars, stop the hemorrhaging, stop losing market share year after year, then stabilize it (share) and hopefully inch up.

“But it won’t come all of sudden. It’ll take years, and it’s going to be a struggle.”