General Motors has lost its best unpaid lobbyist. ‘He is Leonard Woodcock who retired this month as head of the United Auto Workers (UAW).
For several years Woodcock was there whenever GM and the other Michigan auto companies needed him. He defended their enormous price increases, fought incessantly before Congress against necessary air pollution standards, and opposed the proposed passive restraint safety standard for new automobiles. He pushed these auto company beliefs with a fervor approaching a crusade. Typical was a letter he wrote to Michigan’s Gov. William Milliken asking him to oppose the air bag after GM had switched its position from being for to being against that life-saving device. On occasion he would enlist the AFL-CIO and other union allies to go on record for GM’s position.
Whatever was good for GM must be good for the auto workers was the guiding principle behind much of Woodcock’s advocacy. He spent far more time pushing for national health insurance than pushing the car makers to prevent sickness by improving the awful occupational disease conditions in many company plants.
YOUNGER UAW WORKERS were critical of Woodcock’s indifference to workplace conditions while some of the UAW’s staff winced more than once at Woodcock’s locking arms with big auto executives. No wonder the Wall Street Journal gave Woodcock its “fond farewell” editorial during the week he gave up the gavel to his successor, Douglas A. Fraser.
With Fraser at the helm, it could be the beginning of a new day and a broader platform for the UAW and, by stimulation, other progressively led labor unions. For Fraser rejects the kind of corporate power that puts unions in a straitjacket through forcing a choice between jobs and pollution controls or auto safety or occupational safety. And, his close associates report, he doesn’t like to trade off with that kind of powerplay. It was Fraser, for example, who urged Woodcock to take more interest in worker health and safety.
FRASER’S BIGGEST problem will be how to. disinherit the union’s recent corporate ideology and tunnel vision. Fortunately, he can hark back to Walter Reuther who was an articulate backer of air pollution controls, auto safety standards and consumer justice. It almost seems hard to believe that the UAW joined environmentalists. seven years ago in demanding controls so tough on auto emissions that they would phase out the internal combustion engine within five years.
Also, next year will be a record auto sales year, giving Fraser some ease from auto company layoffs. Finally, younger union members seem to be groping for a newer and broader mission for the union. It will be up to Fraser to articulate that mission for conditions inside and outside the factory plant.
There is a major initiatory role waiting for a labor leader willing to move comprehensively along the paths of corporate reform, enhanced citizen rights, and the basic redistribution of power necessary for a democratic society. Given the stability and comparative probity of the UAW, Douglas Fraser now has an opportunity to grasp that role. To do so will require competent management staff, young leadership development, and allies outside his union.
How this immigrant son of a Glasgow electrician handles his six years in office could signal important realignments and revitalizations of populist forces in America.