Detroit — This fall, when the University of Michigan offered an honors course on the history of the labor movement, it was deluged. Some 150 students signed up for a class of 25.
The university asked the professor to screen them. When the professor - none other than Douglas A. Fraser, former president of the United Automobile Workers - refused, the department tried to whittle down the number by asking students why they wanted the course. Mr. Fraser still chuckles over one response:
'' 'My folks say I'll probably leave that course an unabashed liberal,' '' Fraser recalls an engineering student writing. In parentheses, she had added: ''I hope so.''
If there is an American who symbolizes the liberal union cause, his name is Douglas Fraser. These are not particularly sanguine times for liberals or unionists. America has turned to the right. Even in his retirement from the bargaining table, Fraser is as outspoken as ever. cc15pAnd as busy.
Besides teaching at the University of Michigan and lecturing occasionally at Wayne State University, Fraser is on the Chrysler board of directors, the United States-Japan Advisory Commission (appointed by President Reagan), and the Center for National Policy.
''I'm overcommitted,'' he admits, leaning back in his chair in his second-floor office on the Wayne State campus here. He's dressed somewhat incongruously in slightly baggy pants and a sweat shirt. Fraser doesn't look like a university professor (he never graduated from high school) nor, for that matter, like the onetime head of the nation's third-largest union.
But by any measure, Fraser's six-year tenure as UAW president from 1977 to 1983 was historic.
He guided the union through one of its most difficult periods. Under him, the union made its first wage and benefit concessions to the auto companies in the wake of a domestic slump and unprecedented overseas competition. He became the first prominent labor leader to sit on a corporate board.
Fraser has won praise from many quarters. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts calls him a leader who ''can exchange with the best there is - and does it in a way that is positive and constructive.'' Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler, says he's a ''pragmatic man of vision.'' Even UAW members, who swallowed the pay cuts that Fraser negotiated, were saddened when he reached the union's mandatory retirement age and resigned in May.
In a sense, it marked the end of an era. Along with Fraser, vice-president Martin Gerber and five regional directors also retired, leaving the union in the hands of younger men who had not experienced the union's rough-and-tumble early days in the 1930s.
''It's the end of an era, all right, but that's just an accident of the calendar,'' Fraser says. ''The question is: Will that change things? Will the new era be the same philosophically or even be better?''
Fraser is optimistic, not only for the UAW but also for the union movement as a whole.
''The fact is that the labor movement - and this is truly historic - is more unified now in terms of political activities than it has at any time in our history.'' Unions you'd never dream were with you [i.e., the building-trades unions] are with you.''
The AFL-CIO's endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale is a first step, he says. While hard times may have created the political unity, he thinks unions will keep sticking together.
''You're going to find it more difficult to find solutions to the members' problems at the bargaining table. They're too complex. . . . More and more you're going to have to look for solutions in the political arena.
''I know a lot of people used to think that we'd just sit up in Solidarity House [UAW headquarters], look out at the Detroit River, and dream up what people thought were peculiar demands - SUBs [supplementary unemployment benefits ] and all the other things. . . . But they were designed to meet the problems of our constituency.
''In many ways [our] objectives are the same as they were in 1937 during the sit-down strikes,'' he says. ''The two principal issues were dignity and security.''
Dignity, back then, meant eliminating the abuse from company foremen. Security meant that workers were laid off by seniority rather than at the whim of the foreman.
''Now we're saying you get a greater measure of dignity by democratizing the workplace, by giving workers a greater voice in their own future,'' Fraser says. And security means finding a way to protect auto workers ''from the agony that they suffered in 1979 (to) 1982.''
He jangles a set of keys idly as he talks about this period - perhaps the greatest challenge for this man who emigrated with his family from depressed Scotland when he was 6 and lived through the depression and the UAW's founding.
In 1979, Fraser negotiated a contract with Chrysler that staved off bankruptcy, but for the first time gave Chrysler workers less than their counterparts at General Motors and Ford. By 1982, all three automakers were in trouble, and Ford and GM were asking to renegotiate contracts early. After a series of reversals and stalemates, Fraser came back to the rank and file with outright concessions that would be ''passed through'' to car buyers.
''For the first time in our history, we came away from the bargaining table with less than when we went there,'' Fraser recalls. But ''I have no regrets, even with the benefit of hindsight.''
The UAW had for years made concessions to small auto-parts shops when they were in trouble. ''The principle was no different than what we did in those shops, those little shops, in the '50s and what we did in 1982 with Ford and General Motors. . . . That was what the economic realities were.''
And the alternative - doing nothing - would have been worse, he says. ''It would have been easier for me. I could have ridden out the rest of my term, and I wouldn't have had to go through this pain.'' But Ford and GM would have been in a position to demand, rather than ask for, concessions when the contract expired that September.
Now, however, ''the era of concessions is over,'' he says. ''There's no argument about that. Roger Smith [chairman of GM] says that they will not be seeking any concessions in 1984, because the economic facts won't justify it.''
Even Chrysler is nearing the point where continued worker concessions may be an unfair subsidy at the expense of Ford and GM, he says.
Fraser is noticing more labor-management cooperation - from the shop floor to the board room. His own experience on the Chrysler board has taught him that automobile companies are probably more open than he had thought, he says, and his fellow board members are seeing a whole new perspective.
''Being laid off not only means that you've lost your ability to provide for your family in a material sense, it's a loss of dignity,'' Fraser says. ''The depression had a [great] impact on us - everlasting. . . . In 1938, I was laid off for 11 consecutive months. And that was such a searing experience that I can remember it as though it was yesterday.
''I remember when I got called back to work, all you could hear - and it's never changed: 'There's rumors that there's going to be another layoff.' I can remember how shattering that was,'' he says. ''You never forget those things.
''Sure, I'm a bit of a dreamer. [But] you have to know what's doable and achievable. The important thing is laying a foundation based on principles. And even if the foundation is a very small foundation, as long as it's sound, you can build on it.''