Owen Bieber (born 1929), president from 1983 to 1995 of the third-largest labor union in the United States—the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America—is a central figure in the dramatic restructuring of the U.S. auto industry.
Elected UAW president in May 1983, Bieber led more than one million union members, most of whom work in the nation's auto plants. The plants and the U.S. companies that own them reeled in the 1980s from increased competition from lower-cost foreign carmakers and an early 1980s auto slump that saw sales fall to their lowest level since the Great Depression. More than 200,000 auto workers lost their jobs during that time because of the changes in the industry. Bieber struggled to find a balance between the companies' demands to be competitive and the needs of his members to keep their jobs.
Business Week reports one company negotiator as saying Bieber "is a deliberate, hard-working man of great integrity who tempers his comments and actions with an eye for the political consequences." Those attributes helped Bieber negotiate some novel labor agreements at the domestic Big Three automakers—General Motors Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler Corporation. For example, Bieber negotiated historic job guarantee programs that prohibit the companies from laying off workers when new technology eliminates their jobs. Instead, the companies must find new work for the employees and retrain them if necessary. In return, the union agreed to more moderate wage increases than are traditional in auto contracts. Bieber also negotiated the first labor contracts for GM's innovative Saturn small-car project, which began producing a new generation of American cars in 1990. The pact, which drew attention from other industries because of its startling departure from past labor-management practices, lets auto workers share in some management decisions on how the plant is operated. In return, the UAW agreed that Saturn workers would receive starting base pay that is 85 percent of the going rate at traditional auto plants.
Bieber, a large man at six-foot-five and about 250 pounds, "is more purely a labor populist, not much given to trafficking with big thinkers outside the UAW or to serving on panels studying the problems of industry," writes Dale Buss of the Wall Street Journal. "One of his strengths, supporters maintain, is that he understands the wants of rank-and-file workers and is himself a true believer in the trade-union gospel," Buss states.
Bieber's baptism in that gospel goes back many years, to his first job out of high school. A native of the small, northwest Michigan farm community of North Dorr, Bieber went to work in 1948 at the same auto supply plant that employed his father—McInerney Spring and Wire Company in nearby Grand Rapids. The younger Bieber's first job was bending by hand the thick border wire on car seats. He told Kathy Sawyer of the Washington Post: "It was a hard job. After the first hour in there, I felt like just leaving. If my father hadn't worked there, too, I probably would have."
But a year later, at age 19, Bieber was elected to his first union position—shop steward—at UAW Local 687 at the plant. Immediately, he started bargaining. He told the Detroit News that the negotiating began "almost the second they gave me the steward button because there were grievances to take care of, and that's part of collective bargaining." Bieber was to become a highly skilled bargainer as he worked his way up the union ranks in Grand Rapids. In 1951 he became a member of the executive board of Local 687 and helped administer local union affairs. In 1955 he was elected to the local bargaining committee and helped run negotiations on local plant issues. In 1956, he was elected president of the local. As Senator John Kennedy's campaign for the U.S. presidency got under way later in the decade, Bieber—a devout Democrat—joined the effort.
His hard work and dedication brought him to the attention of leaders at the UAW's regional office in Grand Rapids and by 1961, he was assigned part-time as a union organizer in the region, which encompasses 62 of Michigan's 83 counties, covering the western part of the state and the Upper Peninsula. A year later, Bieber became a full time regional organizer and international union representative. In 1964 he became a servicing representative, helping advise local union officials at plants in his area. "He was known as 'Big Dad' for the almost-paternal way he stood by union members in run-ins with management," writes Buss of the Wall Street Journal. In 1972, he was appointed director of the region, a position he held until 1980, when he was elected a vice-president of the UAW and moved to the union's Detroit headquarters. There, Bieber served as director of the UAW's GM department, the union's largest department with more than 400,000 members. It was Bieber's first public exposure beyond Michigan, as GM's plants stretch from shore to shore. But the spotlight was harsh. By early 1982, with all the domestic automakers in the red because of depressed car sales and foreign competition, Bieber found himself helping negotiate the first concessions contract in the history of GM. Accustomed to some of the most lucrative contracts in America, GM workers agreed, among other things, to put off annual wage increases and eliminate some paid time off the job. But the decision was by no means unanimous. The rank and file ratified the contract by only a slim margin. Recalling how difficult the negotiating had been at the small plants in outstate Michigan and how, until 1982, bargaining at GM had always been lucrative for the union, Bieber told the Associated Press: "I thought my life was going to get easier [in the GM department]. All of a sudden the bottom fell out and I got my baptism of fire."
In 1983 the UAW was forced to find a successor for then-president Douglas Fraser, who had reached the mandatory retirement age of 65. Bieber, who has a reputation for being tight-lipped, was the last of three men to declare his candidacy in late 1982, and nonetheless, was selected by the union's 26-member executive board in a 15-11 vote. The nomination, supported by a vote of delegates to the UAW's three-year constitutional convention, surprised some who noted at the time Bieber's shy public demeanor and lack of lengthy experience on the national labor scene. But one member of the UAW executive board put it this way to Mark Lett of the Detroit News: "It's not that Owen bowled anybody over with his charisma. He isn't charismatic. But he also didn't offend anybody. I think we'd all agree that he's a good Christian gentleman who has integrity and can be trusted…. So what's wrong with a guy you can trust?"
Bieber's first three-year term was highlighted by the job security measures he won in the contracts with the Big Three automakers. Bieber, who sits on the Chrysler board of directors, also negotiated in 1985 a more than $2,100 payback for each Chrysler worker for concessions given to the automaker when it was struggling against bankruptcy from 1979 to 1983. That won Bieber overwhelming praise from UAW officials and workers and seemed to dispel past talk about his relative anonymity among union members nationwide. As John Coyne, president of UAW Local 212 in Detroit told John Saunders and Helen Fogel of the Detroit Free Press: "I don't think anybody will say, 'Owen who?' again. He's made his mark." Clyde Templin, a union official from a Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, told the Free Press, Bieber even compares favorably with late UAW President Walter Reuther who was largely responsible for making the union the social and political power that it is: "My own personal feeling is he [Bieber] is probably the best president we've had since Walter Reuther." Reuther, something of an idol in UAW circles, led the union from 1946 until his death in a plane crash in 1970. Bieber himself has often remarked that he plans to keep the UAW on the aggressive social and political course set by Reuther. "I never had the opportunity to work closely with Walter Reuther," Bieber told Lett of the Detroit News. "But all of us in the UAW leadership today identify with the Reuther era. You'll not see this ship of state veer from its established course."
Fights for Rights
But there were problems in Bieber's first term, most notably the pullout of the 120,000 Canadian UAW members in 1985. The action, which followed friction between Bieber and Canadian UAW leader Bob White during 1984's GM contract talks in Canada, deprived the UAW of its international image for the first time in its 50-year history. Bieber also saw the union's requests for protectionism in the auto industry fall on deaf ears in Washington. The UAW demanded a national industrial policy to help protect jobs. It also proposed a requirement that foreign carmakers build a certain percentage of car parts in the United States to help create jobs for American workers.
"It's tougher than I anticipated," Bieber told the Detroit News." There are so many problems. I'm not feeling sorry for myself, but there are so many different problems today. Before, [union presidents worried about] how much money the companies made and if the workers would get their share. They never had the other problems that are out there now like world competition, the Japanese." The complex issues aside, however, Bieber said he was pleased to be the UAW president and looked for more years in that post. "The good Lord willing, [and] good health, I hope to be around for some time," he told Joe Espo of the Flint Journal. In 1984 Bieber was named to Chrysler Corporation's 21-member board of directors. Doug Fraser, formerly head of the UAW, was on the board from 1980 until his retirement in 1984. Chrysler claimed that Bieber was being named as an individual and that the UAW had no proprietary claim to the seat. Industry observer's remarked that the seat really belonged to the Chrysler workers who had granted major concessions during the company's earlier financial problems and were the single largest bloc of shareholders in the corporation. In 1985 Bieber was in the ironic position of calling a strike against Chrysler when labor negotiations broke down. The strike was settled a week later following a 42-hour bargaining session amidst company accusations that the unnecessary $150 million strike was largely due to Bieber's confrontational and ineffectual bargaining style. Neither side was happy with the new contract. In 1989 Bieber told WARD's Auto World that future contract negotiations with the Big Three would center on non-economic issues such as job security, reduced work time, and in a precursor to the 1992 presidential election, national health care.
However, by 1992 Bieber and the UAW were mired in a bitter losing battle with Caterpillar Inc., a leading manufacturer of earth moving equipment. When contract negotiations failed, Caterpillar became entrenched and began hiring replacement workers. The strike lasted five months before the UAW, now crushed, ordered its members back to work without a contract. In a desperate attempt to re-assert the power of the UAW as 1993 Big Three contract negotiations approached, Bieber made a fiery and angry speech at a 1992 UAW convention in San Diego. He warned the auto companies against pushing the union too hard, saying that " … it takes two to make peace but only one to make a war." He warned the companies against "whipsawing" which is a union term for the policy of pitting one plant against another by threatening to close the one least cooperative and productive. Bieber also threatened the companies with future costly strikes:
Do not forget that in the consumer-driven, retail, competitive markets in which you sell your products, you are especially vulnerable to lost production.
Bieber went on to defend the Union's policy with Caterpillar saying that the UAW hadn't capitulated and there is " … more than one way to skin a Cat!" Despite Bieber's speech, the UAW was still facing a bleak future and Bieber's stewardship of the union was doing little to improve the situation. The Caterpillar strike was a major defeat for the UAW and its ramifications were like shock waves to organized labor. In 1992 GM announced plans to close 21 plants and cut an estimated 50,000 UAW members from its workforce. By 1992 the UAW was successful in organizing only 8,000 of the estimated 100,000 workers employed by foreign car manufacturers with plants in the U.S. In 1978 the UAW represented 86 percent of the auto industry's workforce. It now represented only 68 percent, and since 1979 total UAW membership had fallen by 550,000 (1.5 million to 1.1 million). Consequently, Bieber was under tremendous pressure to cope with the falling fortunes of the UAW and pressure from within the Union for Bieber to retire before his scheduled departure in 1995.
However, Bieber did manage to hold onto his post and was succeeded in 1995 by Stephen Yokich, head of the UAW's GM department and long time rival.
Further Reading on Owen Bieber
Associated Press, November 13, 1982; May 12, 1983.
Automotive News, November 22, 1982.
Business Week, November 15, 1982; November 29, 1982; June 6, 1983; June 22, 1992.
Detroit Free Press, November 25, 1984; October 27, 1985; June 12, 1995.
Detroit News, July 29, 1980; November 14, 1982; May 20, 1984;June 15, 1992.
Flint Journal, November 18, 1982.
Industry Week, July 5, 1993.
New York Times, May 19, 1983.
Time, November 22, 1982; November 4, 1985.
U.S. News & World Report, May 30, 1983; September 24, 1984.
Wall Street Journal, February 14, 1984.
WARD'S Auto World, December 1989.
Washington Post, November 22, 1982.