Fraser and last of the old-guard UAW leaders prepare to step down

An era in United Automobile Workers history will end at the union's convention opening in Dallas May 15, but no major changes are expected in its liberal social policies or willingness to cooperate with management.

Douglas A. Fraser, at 66, has reached mandatory retirement age and will step down when a successor is chosen. Owen Bieber is considered a shoo-in to succeed Mr. Fraser as leader of UAW's 1.2 million members, many of whom are out of work.

Mr. Bieber was virtually unknown outside the UAW until he was elected a union vice-president three years ago. He was immediately given one of the union's most important assignments, as head of UAW's General Motors department.

Earlier this year, when the executive board drafted its administrative slate, Bieber was chosen over rivals Raymond Majerus, the UAW's secretary-treasurer, and Donald Ephlin, a vice-president. After a spirited contest, the losers united behind Bieber.

Along with Fraser, vice-president Martin Gerber and 5 of 17 regional directors will retire. This will complete a three-year UAW changeover from officials who got their start during the stormy organizing battles of the 1930s and worked with Walter Reuther as he turned the union into a strong and progressive labor organization in the 1940s.

All the new leaders will have come of age since the union's founding days. To them, Mr. Reuther and those who built the UAW are almost legends. The new leaders were developed in a strong and liberal union; their predecessors were builders of the union in its earlier turbulent times.

Today's leadership will take office in a union that has lost 300,000 members, that has had to trim staff and programs as dues income dropped, and that turned away from past bargaining militancy to pioneer in concessionary settlements last year.

The UAW is still the second-largest union in the country, topped only by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It remains a major influence economically, socially, and politically.

Bieber is a big bear of a man. He comes from rural western Michigan. He went to work at 18 for a small auto supply company and rose through union ranks as a local union officer, a UAW staff member, and finally international union office. He says that he is committed to the ideals of Walter Reuther, so ''the direction in which this union is going will remain pretty constant.''

That means continued adherence to liberal social policies and a willingness to adapt bargaining to changes in UAW industries. He predicts ''more cooperation with employers than 10 years ago.''

UAW convention delegates elect officers, but the voting is largely a formality. A slate of candidates is drafted by an administration caucus and is presented to the convention for election. Some in the union criticize this practice as ''dictatorial'' and say it was designed to perpetuate incumbents. The policy was adopted in the mid-1940s to avoid disruptive election squabbling, and it has worked.

Opposition candidates can be and often are nominated, but through the years caucus nominees have been elected with little more than token opposition.

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