DOUGLAS A. FRASER moved through five decades of enormous change in the American labor movement without getting left behind. He first lent his formidable energy and talent to the United Auto Workers during the bitter organizing battles of the Depression and helped bring about the major contractual gains of the postwar years. Retiring this week as president of the union, he will be missed by both labor and management as the auto industry struggles to adjust to a new industrial era.

When Mr. Fraser joined in the 1930s, the UAW was fighting for recognition against company management that sometimes resorted to physical violence to obstruct union organizing efforts. Now, 47 years later, Mr. Fraser sits on the Chrysler board-- the first major union leader to hold such a post-- and the UAW has become so entrenched a fixture in the automobile and related industries that it must accept a share of the blame for the current decline of those industries.

Mr. Fraser's durability owes much to his intellectual capacity and his ability to adjust his methods and objectives to the changing fortunes of his union. The last of its leaders to have served directly under Walter Reuther, Mr. Fraser retained his zeal for social progress and civil rights. But, like many other liberals, he was forced to reappraise his tactics.

After years of fighting for better pay and benefits, Mr. Fraser spent the last three years persuading his members to make concessions to save their jobs from foreign competition. That competition also led him to abandon a longtime commitment to free trade in order to press for auto import quotas and "local content" legislation--actions needed at least temporarily, he said, to force other countries to compete fairly in the world market.

This is an argument much in vogue as politicians in both parties try to square intellectual commitment to open markets with the reality that, even as recovery progresses, large numbers of industrial jobs will not return to the economy. Worldwide flows of capital have made it increasingly difficult for any nation to shield its workers from competition from the lower-paid and sometimes more productive workers of developing countries.

But Mr. Fraser did not resist the workplace changes needed to increase U.S. productivity. Unlike those union leaders who see labor-management cooperation as a threat to their authority, he supported introduction of new technology and involvement of workers in design of production and quality control systems. In return for more flexibility in work rules, he pressed for worker retraining and greater job security. This is an approach to competition that Mr. Fraser's successor, as well his counterparts in other unions, would do well to follow.