(AP/WOOD) — Owen Bieber, who led the United Auto Workers union from the auto industry’s dark days of the early 1980s to the prosperity of the mid-1990s, has died. He was 90.
Neither as charismatic as his predecessor, Douglas Fraser, nor as confrontational as his successor, Stephen Yokich, the low-key Bieber had an easygoing manner that belied his 6-foot-4, 265-pound frame and the results he produced at the bargaining table.
Steve Dawes, the director of UAW Region 1D, described Owen’s passion for his work.
“He was a big man in stature, but he was a bigger man in his heart and what he believed,” Dawes said.
Taking over as its president in 1983, Bieber shepherded the UAW through a recession, the Reagan era, industry downsizing and rapidly expanding global competition. Bieber led the UAW through contract talks that won its members wages, benefits and job and income security that were unmatched in other major U.S. industries.
Under Bieber, the UAW also actively supported the Solidarity labor movement, which challenged Poland’s Communist government, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Bieber traveled to South Africa twice, raising the alarm about the imprisonment of labor activists and smuggling images of torture out of the country. In 1986, he was arrested while marching at the South African embassy in Washington D.C.
When former South African President Nelson Mandela toured the U.S. after his release from prison, Bieber stood at his side during a rally in Detroit. In 2003, Archbishop Desmond Tutu singled Bieber out during a visit to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“We came asking for help, and you gave that help and accomplished this extraordinary thing,” Tutu said, according to the UAW.
News 8 spoke with Michael Bieber, a son of Owen Bieber, over the phone about the legacy he leaves behind.
“The most important thing I would say about my father’s legacy is that he worked endlessly and tirelessly on behalf of working people to provide social and economic justice for all people,” Michael Bieber said.
Family members say even with his international success, he always stayed grounded.
“My dad was with royalty,” Michael Bieber said. “He was with international folks, but he was just the down-home guy that never forgot where he came from.”
Bieber was born Dec. 28, 1929, in North Dorr, Mich. He joined the union in 1948 when he went to work bending wire for car seats at McInerney Spring and Wire Co. in Grand Rapids and became a shop steward the following year. By 1956 he was president of his local.
In 1961, then-UAW president Walter Reuther made Bieber a member of the regional staff. He became regional director in 1974 and was elected a UAW vice president in 1980. Three years later, he succeeded Fraser as president.
WOODTV 8 interviewed Owen Bieber in 2013 about his work in South Africa and his relationship with Nelson Mandela. In a portion of the interview that never aired, he described what he wanted his legacy to be.
“I hope that people when they remember me will say, well, he tried, he fought the battle to improve the living standard for not just our members but the whole society,” Owen Bieber said.
News 8’s Kyle Mitchell contributed to this report.