Former UAW President Owen Bieber dies at 90

Kalea Hall Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber died Monday. He was 90.

Bieber led the UAW for 12 years, longer than anyone except the legendary Walter Reuther. Bieber was the union's seventh president, from May 1983 to June 1995.

He's known for leading the union during turbulent times when the auto industry was starting to feel the effects of foreign competition gaining market share while the economy was in a downturn.

"He led the UAW at a challenging time for auto workers and all working people, and he fought for social change in this country and around the world," Ron Bieber, Owen's son and president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, said in a statement. "His loss is felt deeply by his family and all of those whose lives he touched. Owen Bieber left behind a world that is better off because of his activism and dedication to service to others." 

UAW President Rory Gamble called Bieber "a man of incredible leadership" who didn't shy away from "tough battles or taking a stand on controversial issues."

Past UAW president Owen Bieber on the stage during the UAW Special Convention on Collective Bargaining at Cobo Center in Detroit on March 27, 2007.

“He was not only a devoted trade unionist but a social activist whose impact was felt around the world," Gamble said in a statement. "Whether it was his support to end apartheid in South Africa or in Poland, Owen stood on the right side of history for the nation and the world.”

Bieber, the son of Albert and Minnie Bieber, was born in North Dorr, Michigan, in December 1929.

He worked at McInerney Spring and Wire Co. in Grand Rapids, the same auto supply plant where his father worked. At age 19, Bieber's co-workers elected him Local 687’s shop steward. By 1955, he was elected to the local bargaining committee.

In 1972, Bieber was appointed director of UAW Region 1D, a position he had until 1980, when he was elected vice president. Bieber served as director of the union’s General Motors department, the union's largest department with more than 400,000 members.

In a statement, GM said: “Owen Bieber will be remembered for his commitment to workers and his leadership of the UAW through challenging times for more than a decade. The entire General Motors family would like to extend its deepest sympathies and condolences to his family.”

Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement: “I knew and respected Owen Bieber and he was instrumental in guiding the UAW through some of its most challenging times.  He was an advocate for the union’s membership and his leadership has had a lasting impact. Our thoughts go out to his family at this difficult time.” 

In a statement Fiat Chrysler Autombiles NV said: "Owen will be remembered for his unwavering commitment to championing the causes of working people, and fighting tirelessly to protect the standard of living for millions of UAW members and their families. Owen’s leadership in calling attention to labor and civil rights movements, whether here at home or around the world, will be part of his legacy."

Taking the president's seat

Bieber was elected UAW president in 1983 during the union’s 27th Constitutional Convention in Dallas. He succeeded Douglas Fraser and served four consecutive three-year terms.

He oversaw one of the nation's largest unions at a time when Japanese automakers were cutting into the market shares of GM, Ford and the former Chrysler Corp. The external threats from international competition "sort of blindsided the auto industry, and it was on the heels of the energy crisis," said Marick Masters, business professor at Wayne State University.

Bieber was put in the difficult position of balancing the interests of his members and fighting to keep the companies competitive.

Early in his tenure, Bieber negotiated the creation of the jobs bank, which paid laid-off workers most of their salary to do no work or for community service. It was intended to deter downsizing by automakers but became a symbol of union excess during the Great Recession and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, when it was eliminated.

Bieber provided a “steady hand” to the union after it had endured the most troubling times economically since the Great Depression, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who studies labor issues.

“It was a particularly critical period and deeply troubling period at times economically during his presidency,” Shaiken said. “He had a very large challenge before him. He was a person that was very, a person of integrity, someone who provided a steady hand and effective leadership through some very troubled times.”

Bieber is credited with diversifying the UAW by inviting new members from areas outside of industrial sectors, including government and private employers. 

He experimented with some new approaches to organizing. Although advances at Japanese automaker plants failed, the UAW had some success at joint venture operations with Mazda Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Fremont, California’s New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. project between GM and Toyota Motor Corp. that explored new management-labor relations.

With the Detroit Three, Bieber oversaw the growth of joint training programs with the companies that have been the subject of the federal government’s recent investigation into union corruption.

“Under Bieber was when the union did embrace new ways of organizing work that is the joint programs in the plants with things like quality circles, union participation on quality and things that had been associated with the Japanese automakers,” Shaiken said.

In 1990, Bieber allowed the creation of the innovative Saturn small-car project in Tennessee that functioned under a separate contract and work rules. But over time, Saturn's independence was reined in by Bieber's successors, and the brand died.

'Dependable guy'

Outside of UAW leadership, Bieber took on missions abroad including in South Africa.

He traveled there twice, and while there checked on labor activist Moses Mayekiso, a leader in the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, who was imprisoned for leading a rent boycott. Bieber and others raised the international profile of Mayekiso’s case and the activist was eventually acquitted.

While in South Africa, Bieber captured more evidence of the real impact of apartheid when he smuggled images out of the country showing the scarred bodies of people in South Africa who challenged the country’s apartheid government.

Bieber could be a voice for the workers when needed, but personally came off as a bit shy and quiet, Shaiken said.

“He was a big guy,” he said. “You noticed him in the room. He could very tough, and he had a gentle side to his character. He started on the shop floor. He essentially had jobs at all levels of the union.”

Masters said Bieber wasn't known "for being charismatic or colorful, but he was a steady force and one who had the best interest of the union and the members in mind."

"He was a very dependable kind of guy," he said.

When he exited the union in 1995, Bieber advocated that unions and companies needed to develop mutual goals and work together to accomplish them.

"Labor and management have forged a collective bargaining relationship through which we can find common ground," he said during one of his final speeches as president in Detroit. "The beauty of the process we have created is that it offers a structured and rational means of solving problems."

Bieber voiced opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and was a fighter for the auto industry. 

"He was pushing for an industrial policy ... to try and protect the companies from unfair competition and to find domestic assistance to build a strong workforce," Masters said. "He stands out as being a stalwart."