It was characteristic of Douglas A. Fraser that he stepped down last week from the presidency of the United Auto Workers--a job he loved--rather than ask for a waiver from the union's normal retirement age. Fraser's membership would have been happy to keep him, but he has never asked special privileges for himself and he was not about to start now.
That inbred sense of self-restraint is only one of the qualities that set this remarkable 66-year-old Scotsman apart from most of the powerful figures in American labor, industry and politics who were his peers in these last years--men for whom the perks of privilege are as natural as the air they breathe.
Doug Fraser lived in a modest center-city apartment and flew coach. When I bumped into him one day at O'Hare Airport, he was using his time between planes to do some telephone lobbying with senators considering the Chrysler bailout bill. But he wasn't operating from the insulated grandeur of the Admirals Club, with a platoon of aides assuring him privacy. He was making his calls from a pay phone himself--right in the middle of the concourse.
Add brains, charm, humor and gritty integrity, and you can understand why his retirement from the UAW leaves so large a gap in the fabric of the nation's leadership.
In a valedictory interview with labor writer John Herling, Fraser recalled that he went to work as a laborer for Chrysler in December of 1936, six years after his father brought the family from Glasgow to Detroit seeking employment.
Fraser was hired just as the sit-down strikes were beginning, was disciplined for his union activity and was laid off for 11 months in 1938. "You know," he said, "I'm really glad I lived during that period. Don't forget where you come from. That's crucial."
Fraser never forgot. Though he occupied a leadership role in the union bureaucracy for 30 years, he did not allow himself--as so many other aging union chiefs did--to fall onto the far side of the generation gap, out of touch with the social and political values of the men and women in the plants. Fraser kept in touch.
Even when those members seemed to be rejecting values that Fraser's liberalism cherished, he did not allow himself the easy rationalization of saying they had grown selfish or soft. In 1968, he anguished as much as anyone in Solidarity House about the "defection" of thousands of blue-collar families to George Wallace. But he listened to their gripes about what they perceived as the raw deal they were were getting from big government, big business and even their big union. "They haven't left us," Fraser said then. "We've lost touch with them." And, in the end, he helped bring most of them back to the Democratic party and Hubert Humphrey.
Fraser was part of Walter Reuther's founding generation of the UAW. But by the time he came to the presidency of the union in 1977, its glory days were past. The auto industry was in decline, and, with it, the UAW membership. Instead of negotiating ever- sweeter contracts, it fell to him to negotiate give-backs. Instead of enjoying a chummy relationship with a political ally in the White House, he faced a standoffish Jimmy Carter and a hostile Ronald Reagan.
The role for which he is best known--as the first labor man to serve as a member of the board of directors of one of the Big Three auto companies, Chrysler--is a bittersweet distinction. He accepted it only as a recognition of the union's contract concessions that helped keep the company alive.
I never heard Fraser express any bitterness about the cards he was dealt. He could get angry, but only about the injustice he saw being inflicted on other people, far less able to protect themselves.
He never wavered in his commitment to his original ideals of social justice, racial equality and economic opportunity. He never backed off from a fight, no matter what the odds, so long as the issue was clear. If he was intolerant of anything, it was of politicians and union leaders who gave only lip service to their professed goals. He never wearied of trying to instill his own sense of mission and discipline in the union and the party he cherished.
But Fraser never fooled himself--or anyone else. He was a supreme realist. He backed Ted Kennedy against the odds, but told him bluntly when the fight was over and it was time to heal party wounds. He also told Jimmy Carter what events proved to be true: that his temporizing policies had driven millions of workers into Ronald Reagan's arms.
Any Democrat who comes to the presidency in the next few years would be crazy not to enlist Fraser's energy, empathy, brains, candor and guts in a central role in his administration.
But for now, Fraser will be taking up teaching duties at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. Those are lucky students.