Douglas A. Fraser, perhaps the most influential leader of the United Auto Workers union except for his mentor and UAW founder Walter Reuther, turned 90 on Dec. 18.

Fraser, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Scotland when he was 6, retired from the UAW in 1983 after six years as president, a period that included Chrysler Corp.'s tumultuous government loan bailout as it teetered near bankruptcy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As part of those negotiations, Fraser was elected to Chrysler's board of directors, a historic first for a union leader. He served on the board from 1980 to 1984.

Now living in Northville, MI, Fraser retired from the UAW but never stopped working. He has lectured at universities and today is a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, aptly occupying an office at WSU's Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs.

Although he's slightly frail, Fraser remains sharp, with a keen sense of humor and up to speed on the crisis facing the Big Three auto makers and his beloved union. As a 70-year UAW veteran — he joined the union in 1936 just before his 20th birthday — he has seen many crises, starting with the union's often violent organizing drives during the Great Depression.

Established in 1935, the UAW had 27,000 members in 1936 but grew tenfold the next year and reached the 1-million mark in 1944, the same year he was elected president of UAW Local 227 in Detroit.

Membership peaked at 1.5 million in 1969 and remained fairly steady until a falloff began in 1981 and continues today. Membership slipped below 600,000 last year and is heading lower as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. shed tens of thousands of workers through buyouts.

Moreover, Fraser reckons less than half of the current membership comes from automotive ranks. The UAW now represents numerous other groups, including state and local employees, college teaching assistants and health-care workers.

Such shrinkage would seem depressing for an old union workhorse who fought for decades to help win some of the most lucrative contracts for his members. But if Fraser is disappointed, it doesn't show.

In a recent interview, Fraser traces reasons why the Big Three got into their current dilemma and offers insights into how they may yet get out of it. He declines, however, to speculate on what might be on the agenda in 2007 negotiations toward a new union contract.

“Ron (Gettlefinger, current UAW president) will act intelligently and with courage, but these are going to be very difficult negotiations,” he says.

“I think maybe '07 will be a time for innovation on all sides, but I don't want to go beyond that,” he says. “It's not that I'm afraid to express it, but I don't want to put the (union) leadership at any sort of disadvantage.”

One idea that may have merit, he allows: An equitable bonus plan for top executives and salaried and hourly employees — in short, everyone — based on performance, meeting sales and quality objectives and other criteria.

The UAW won profit sharing at the Big Three in 1983, and through 2004 its members at Ford had collected a total of $48,425 and at Chrysler $47,989. GM, however, had paid out only $8,216.

Fraser touches on a variety of subjects:

  • The UAW has given GM and Ford concessions on health-care costs and other issues on a plant-by-plant basis.

  • The UAW has a “monumental” challenge in organizing the Asian transplant auto factories, although, as their work forces age, it may have a better chance. He's especially irked by Toyota Motor Corp., which has lived with a UAW contract since New United Motor Mfg. Inc. (NUMMI) was formed by GM and Toyota in a former GM plant in Fremont, CA, in the mid 1980s with Toyota managing the operation.

    “That's why I'm so goddamn mad at Toyota, because they know it works,” he says. “They know we can make it work. That's the aggravating thing. We were as much a part of that (NUMMI) as management. We actually ran an employment office (to hire NUMMI workers) out of our local union hall.”

    In the end, NUMMI got just two job classifications instead of up to 30 at many UAW plants, a huge advantage coveted by management.

  • Fraser also takes issue with BMW AG and DaimlerChrysler AG (Mercedes) for fending off UAW overtures at their plants in South Carolina and Alabama, respectively.

    While it's tough organizing the Japanese transplants who hire so-called “labor consultants” to keep the UAW at bay, Fraser says, “ I thought we could break through at BMW and Mercedes. In Germany they would never resist unions — it's unthinkable and socially unacceptable. But they come to our great country and what do they do? They do as the Romans do. It's really hard for me to understand.”

  • He doubts there will be major changes as the Democrats take control of Congress in January, except possibly passage of a new federal minimum wage law, because neither party wants to make waves in the run-up to the 2008 national election.

“My view is you would not want to do anything that jeopardizes your chances for '08, which means you can't get way out there (such as taking on health care),” he says. Fraser thinks there will be more bipartisan action as Republicans side with Democrats to try and solve the Iraq dilemma.

Despite the fact the South now is laced with nonunion auto assembly and component plants competing with Detroit, Fraser is surprisingly sanguine about the trend.

“That's not a bad development,” he says. “I'd love to see the South develop, only not at our expense. The big question is, what replaces jobs here?”

Fraser says workers at southern transplants can make $26 per hour — big money in those areas — making the region less than fertile for organizing.

“You're threatening a lifestyle they've never had, and they feel their jobs may be threatened if they organize,” he says. “It is extremely difficult, and we've been unable to do it.”

Fraser says monetary and trade policies are only partly to blame for the Big Three's slide. “The basic problem is Americans aren't buying (enough) American cars. We're still trying to live down our reputation of the '70s when we built lousy cars and got away with it,” he says.

“I think we got careless, and then we had the interventions of fuel shortages and the American market shifted over to small cars. We had only two small cars, the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega, and both were dogs,” Fraser says. “Americans were looking for very high quality automobiles, and we didn't have anything. The Japanese (with ample small cars) were eating us up. The point is you started cutting corners and got a bad reputation, which was deserved.”

Fraser says Big Three quality now is competitive, but the Japanese still have a significant advantage with higher trade-in values.

Design also is catching up, he says. Fraser drives a Chrysler 300. When he first saw it, he thought it would never catch on, but the car became a hit. “You take risks when you go for more radical design because the history of the industry is slow evolutionary design,” he says.

Ford's original Taurus in the 1980s was another exception, while the much maligned Pontiac Aztek crossover/utility vehicle was too radical to his eyes. “Whoever designed that car, I don't want them to pick out a girlfriend for me,” he laughs.

Fraser says the UAW is regularly making deals to preserve jobs by winning new products. “Lordstown (OH, GM's Chevrolet Cobalt plant) is a wonderful example, and it's going on every place. The Jeep plant in Toledo is another example,” he says. “There's no argument that we won't step up to, but admittedly you do it at the point of crisis. Look at the U.S. — we can hardly make a decision unless there's a crisis.”

Teaming with management also has produced some unlikely big projects, he underscores. During the 1980s, GM worked with Detroit's late Mayor Coleman Young in clearing a large section of Detroit and neighboring Hamtramck to build a new plant to assemble Cadillacs and Buicks.

“If you're talking about maximizing profits, as the Japanese do, GM never would have done that,” Fraser says. “A greenfield site would've been much better for many reasons.”

Chrysler followed by clearing an eastside location to build the new Jeep Grand Cherokee plant. His point: The Big Three historically have been major supporters of their home town and its institutions. “It's a matter of attitude and social responsibility,” he says.

Fraser says he wouldn't argue against further industry mergers and consolidation in the industry, so long as they make sense and don't amount to weddings with “weak sisters.”

That might also apply to the UAW as well. Recently, reports suggest the UAW might link up with another union to strengthen its position.

Fraser also calls the derailed merger proposed between GM, Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. an ill-conceived match. “What did each have to offer the other?” he asks

What else can the UAW do to help the Big Three? “They've done a lot already, and it hasn't been easy,” Fraser says.

“It's obviously very serious for the auto workers we represent. They're going through a terrible period. 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.”