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Labour in the Boardroom: A New Trend or a Mere Exception?

July 1, 1983 -

Traditionally, American labour unions have shied away from company boardrooms, preferring the us-versus-them stance. However, trying economic times have caused a change in attitude among some trade unionists. One of the best-known instances of boardroom participation by a union member involves Douglas Fraser, the former president of United Auto Workers, who has been a member of the board of directors of the Chrysler Corporation since 1980. The one-year term of Mr. Fraser was recently extended. Owen Bieber, Mr. Fraser's successor as president of the United Auto Workers, is reportedly unenthusiastic about working with management at the boardroom level.

In a 1981 interview, Mr. Fraser discussed his membership on the Chrysler board. He explained that upon his urging the directors had established a committee on plant closings and economic dislocation. This had resulted in a much closer involvement of board members with actual developments at the various plants. One of the members of the Chrysler board subseguently confided to Fraser that he had never thought about the problem of economic dislocation in the same way before. Now he had become much more conscious of the impact upon workers and communities. Mr. Fraser continued:

Well, I thought to myself, why is that? Not because businessmen are mean-spirited or that they lack compassion. They never thought of it because they come from a different background and have a different perspective. And that's what is important about labour participation with management. Labour participation can be beneficial to management, if it is organized right—and I think it can be. The worker representative could come from the plant and would understand the workers from their own perspective (Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs, July/August 1981, p. 31 

Although unsure whether labour in the boardroom represents the wave of the future, Mr. Fraser argued that it should. "In time," he said, "labor leaders are going to reach the conclusion that it's not enough to protest management decisions that are already made, that are irreversible, and have an adverse impact upon the members you represent. I'm not saying that labor should have the controlling voice, but certainly labor should have some input before decisions are made." (Challenge, p. 30)

Hopefully some of Mr. Fraser's views will rub off on his Canadian colleagues.