Ruben Burks, first black UAW secretary-treasurer, dies from coronavirus

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Ruben Burks, who became the United Auto Workers' first African American secretary-treasurer in 1998, died Monday 65 years after first joining the union, the UAW said. He was 86 and had complications with COVID-19, according to a Facebook post by his nephew. 

Burks was a long-time advocate for unions and social justice, according to a union biography. He also emphasized the UAW's work in education, its members' involvement in political campaigns and its leaders' involvement in the community, especially in his Flint union local.

Ruben Burks

“It is never easy losing a member of the UAW family, and it is especially hard when it is someone like my union brother Ruben Burks, who gave so much to members and the union that he loved,” UAW President Rory Gamble said in a statement. “He was a gentleman, and a fighter for what is right and just. I am forever thankful for his leadership and his friendship.”

Burks in 1955 began working as an assembler at General Motors Co.'s former Fisher Body Plant 2 in Flint. He joined Local 598 and steadily rose through the ranks. He held numerous positions at the local, including shop committee person and executive board member. Local 598 in 2017 renamed its union hall Ruben Burks Hall to honor his decades of leadership.

In 1970, UAW President Walter Reuther appointed Burks as an international representative in Region 1C based in Flint. By 1989, he was the region's director and was re-elected for three terms.

As director, Burks restructured the UAW's activist Community Action Program to emphasize the importance of education as well as recruiting and training UAW members to volunteer in political campaigns in the region.

“Ruben Burks will always be here in spirit,” Steve Dawes, director of Region 1D, which has since merged with Region 1C, said in a statement. “He was a soft-spoken man who was always here when we needed him. He was full of wisdom and never stopped fighting for active and retired UAW members and all working people.”

He became secretary-treasurer in 1998, the union's No. 2 under President Stephen Yokich. Burks continued in the role until 2002 when he was in his mid-60s.

He was the first labor leader to chair the board of trustees of the United Way of Genesee and Lapeer counties in 1991. He also held a leadership post with respect to economic development in Flint and Genesee County. Burks received an honorary degree in community development from Mott Community College in recognition and appreciation of his contributions to the Flint community.

Additionally, he was director of the Flint Urban league and Goodwill Industries of Flint and an advisory board member of the University of Michigan-Flint. He participated in events for other charities, including the Special Olympics, March of Dimes and the Red Cross.

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble