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Former UAW president Owen Bieber dies


Former United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber has died.  

Bieber led the UAW through a recession, industry downsizing and expanding global competition.

Owen Bieber was a born union man. The son of a UAW member who founded a union local in Grand Rapids, Bieber rose through the union’s ranks becoming president in 1983. He held the job until 1995. 

Current UAW President Rory Gamble says Bieber “was not afraid of tough battles.”

Often those tough battles were political.

Later in life, in an interview recorded by the UAW, Bieber stressed the role of the UAW in pushing a national political agenda to strengthen unions.

“We can see what has happened to the middle class in America, and the middle class is our members,” Bieber told the interviewer. “We see what happened…when we elected the wrong people to office.”

The negotiating table was another battlefield. Increasing foreign competition and automakers focused on cutting spending put particular pressure on the union in the 1980s and early '90s.  

Arthur Schwartz is a former labor negotiator for General Motors. He was part of three national contract talks between the automaker and the UAW during Bieber’s presidency. 

Bieber was a big man, but Schwartz says he was mild-mannered, not one to hammer his fist on the negotiating table. 

He credits Bieber with leading the union during a challenging time.

“This is when Honda, Toyota and Nissan were coming on. The Detroit Three were losing market share. He was president during a rather rough time,” says Schwartz. “(Bieber) tried to adjust and I think he did a pretty good job leading the UAW for the time he was president.”

But the turbulent economic times took their toll on the UAW during Bieber’s presidency. 

Harley Shaiken is a professor at the University of California Berkeley. He specializes in the history of America’s unions.

Shaiken says the UAW was weaker at the end of Bieber’s time as president.

“But that wasn’t the fault of Owen Bieber. That was the restructuring of the industry, of the economy,” says Shaiken.

Perhaps Bieber’s most lasting legacy was the leadership he showed away from the assembly line.

Owen Bieber threw his union’s support behind the emerging free trade union movement in Eastern Europe and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

“If people are imprisoned in South Africa, if people can’t vote in South Africa; can’t decide where they want to live in South Africa,” Bieber told an interviewer at the time. “If that goes on, it only means that some point in time, our privileges are also at peril.”

Late in life, Bieber lamented the strong anti-union message coming from talk radio and other sources. He stressed the need to teach young people about the value of unions.

“We need to educate them,” Bieber said. “We’re shortchanging ourselves if we don’t.”

Former United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber was 90 years old.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.