``I was never sorry I went through the depression,'' says Douglas Fraser, who retired in 1983 as president of the 1.1 million-member United Automobile Workers (UAW). ``It made such a lasting impression on me that I never forgot where I came from.'' Born in a working-class section of Glasgow, Fraser was 6 when he moved with his family to Detroit, where his father, a labor union activist, worked as an electrician in a Studebaker plant. The young Fraser dropped out of high school and went to work as a metal finisher in the Chrysler Corporation's DeSoto plant.
He became president of his UAW local in 1943, served in World War II, and joined the UAW administrative staff under Walter Reuther in 1953. Succeeding Leonard Woodcock in a six-year term as UAW president in 1977, Fraser negotiated the first wage and benefit concessions in the history of the union in the face of an industrywide sales slump.
As a director of Chrysler, he was the first prominent labor leader to sit on an American corporate board. Recently he has been sharing his knowledge and experience at various universities, including Harvard and now Wayne State University, where he teaches courses in labor studies.
``We're not an organization that's just interested in membership and dues and negotiating wage increases and rich fringe benefits,'' says Fraser, referring to the UAW. ``We're about the community. We're an instrument for social change. The important thing is equipping your members or your former members to live fulfilling lives.''