The Dropout and the Professor: U.A.W. President Doug Fraser and Wife Winnie Settle for Love
In June Winnie Fraser was invited to an important reception at a regional meeting of the United Auto Workers in Madison Heights, Mich. Since her husband, Douglas, is president of the UAW, it was an offer she could hardly refuse. But she did. The reason is a tribute to the liberation movement and the sensibility of two middle-aged Americans who want their second marriages to work. Mrs. Fraser, 55, is also Dr. Fraser, a $27,000 professor and associate dean of the graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit. Commencement was the same day as the UAW reception. "I had no problem making that decision," she recalls. "I meet my professional commitments but still maintain a balance in my life with Doug. I'm an expert juggler."
That view is endorsed by her husband, a high school dropout known in labor circles for his puckish sense of humor, shrewd bargaining and quick temper. "Winnie's career is imperative to our marriage," he says. "She has her own identity—she's not just Doug Fraser's wife."
Being Doug Fraser's wife is particularly demanding now. Fraser, 62, is negotiating with General Motors under the threat of a nationwide strike that could begin September 14, when the union's contract expires. "I really want to settle this year," he says, "both for the workers and the country."
The major issue is how the auto workers—including retirees—should be compensated for inflation. Fraser scoffs at press speculation that he might provoke a strike to strengthen his union leadership. A GM labor executive is skeptical of such reports and says, "Anyone who thinks Doug Fraser hasn't proven his virility long ago hasn't read the papers."
Fraser is feeling pressure from the White House to avert a shutdown. Jimmy Carter himself called. Later Fraser asked the President and other third parties to "stay the hell away" from the negotiations. Still, Fraser supported Carter in 1976 and approves of Administration plans to help out the financially ailing Chrysler Corp. When GM President Thomas Murphy announced that he opposed such aid, Fraser called him "a horse's ass," and added, "I get so angry when people are ready to cast the workers aside. These people have cash registers where their hearts should be." A GM spokesman says of the Fraser-Murphy confrontation, "There is respect on both sides, contrary to emotional comments of the past."
At home Fraser tends to be less combative. Winnie, whose doctorate is in experimental psychology, credits the success of their marriage to her feminist consciousness and his willingness to change. "When Doug married me," she says, "he in no way expected me to stay home and be normal. He has always treated me as an equal. Now he's starting to treat other women that way." Admits Doug, who shares reluctantly in the housework, "Anyone my age can't be entirely free of prejudice. For years not many females could talk about the great issues of the day. Now there are more interesting women."
Born in Scotland, the son of an electrician, Douglas moved to Detroit at age 6. By 18 he was packing cork insulation into hot-water heaters—"a filthy job," he recalls. Fired for trying to start a union at the plant, he got a job on Chrysler's De Soto assembly line, where he rose quickly through the then young UAW hierarchy. By 26 Fraser was president of his local; at 30 he was an international representative, thanks partly to his hail-fellow style of union politicking. "In those days you finished work, then went to a beer garden and did nothing but talk about the union," Fraser says.
To avoid an election he seemed likely to lose, he dropped out of the voting to succeed UAW President Walter Reuther, who was killed in a 1970 plane crash. In 1977, when successor Leonard Woodcock retired, the union board unanimously named Fraser to replace him in what is now a $61,000 job. The three presidents have had distinctive styles, but, Fraser jokes, they had one thing in common. "Walter, Leonard and I all were altar boys. We could say the Mass in Latin. But as adults we were all fallen Catholics." (So is Winnie.)
Fraser has proved to be a popular union head who has won new health and legal benefits for his members. His major failure so far: the executive board's vote against rejoining the AFL-CIO, which Reuther left in 1968 in a dispute with George Meany.
Fraser, who married his high school sweetheart in 1938 and fathered two daughters, first met Winnie in 1944, when she was working for the UAW and married to a tool-and-die maker. She barely remembers Doug. He has no such trouble: "She was pretty, and she handled the expense accounts."
Her interests took her beyond accounting. "I grew up when a woman's goal was marriage and children," she says. But after her younger daughter entered school, she began taking college courses. Ten years later she earned her doctorate from Wayne State. She met Doug again in 1966 when he spoke there. Since both were recently divorced, they began dating and were married in July 1967.
The Frasers live in a modest $45,000 two-bedroom co-op near downtown Detroit; their only car is a '77 Chrysler. When Doug travels on UAW business (204 days last year), Winnie often flies to meet him at her own expense; New York is a favorite, primarily for the theater. "The most pleasurable times are when we're away together," Winnie says. "Our work is social, so we really like the contrast of solitude."
Winnie discovered just how social last October when Ted Kennedy, an old friend, came to town. "His staff called and asked if he could stay with us, and my first reaction was panic," she recalls. " 'My God,' I thought, 'I should paint and clean.' Then I thought, 'This is ridiculous.' We decided to relax." By all reports, Kennedy's visit was a success. He even made his own bed. "It was a bit lumpy," laughs Winnie.
Though Fraser called the Carter Cabinet shuffle in July "stupid," he has so far refused to endorse a Kennedy candidacy. Whoever runs, Fraser knows he will become increasingly in demand as the 1980 election nears. "I don't kid myself," he says. "It's not Doug Fraser who is invited to Camp David. It's the president of the UAW."
He seems to regard the current GM negotiations with a mixture of concern and competitor's zeal. "You're exhausted," he says. "No, you're not exhausted because the adrenaline is flowing. Sometimes I feel like I could go on indefinitely."
In the office Fraser's fuse is short, but the explosions brief. "He lashes out," an aide says, "usually for good reason. Five minutes later he is laughing again." Winnie is spared at home. "Doug's temper has to build," she says. "We never let it get to the point of anger." During the talks she won't see much of her husband. "It's an exciting time for Doug, like the ultimate chess game," she says. "I have a long list of things to do. Besides, I'm used to it. He's the perfect husband for me. He's like an old but very interesting shoe."
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