Owen Bieber, Auto Workers’ President During Period of Decline, Dies at 90

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Mr. Bieber joined McInerney Spring and Wire Company, where his father worked. He bent wire to make seat frames for Cadillacs and Hudsons.

“You had to bend 8- and 9-gauge spring wire, sometimes five wires at a time,” he recalled. “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’ve.”

His union rise was steady but not rapid. In 1949, he was named shop steward of Local 687, covering Grand Rapids. He became the local president in 1956. In 1964, he was named the personal aide of Kenneth Robinson, director of the union’s affairs in Western Michigan.

When Mr. Robinson retired in 1974, Mr. Bieber succeeded him, and held the post until 1980, when he was elected a vice president of the national U.A.W., a promotion that put him in the union’s Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit. President Fraser assigned him to lead the negotiations that produced the concessionary contract with G.M.

He was a compromise choice for the presidency, elected by union delegates at a national convention. He was not well known among the rank and file. He was a big man — 6 feet, 5 inches and 250 pounds — with none of the Reuther charisma or the Fraser prestige. Plain-spoken and genial, he was the first U.A.W. leader who had not been close to Mr. Reuther.

Mr. Bieber had a seat on Chrysler’s board from 1984 to 1991. He donated his $30,000 annual director’s fee to a state university. As president of a major union, he was not highly paid — $103,938 when he retired in 1995. He lived in Byron Center, Mich., and had a lake cottage at Baldwin, Mich.

Like past U.A.W. presidents, Mr. Bieber supported Democrats and liberal causes. In 1986, he represented the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in mounting a boycott of American companies doing business with South Africa’s apartheid government. Nelson Mandela, touring the United States after his release from prison in 1990, stopped in Detroit to thank Mr. Bieber for his support.

“Looking back, I feel pretty good about what we were able to do under tough circumstances,” he said in 2017. “And I feel pretty good about Mr. Mandela. Coleman Young, the mayor of Detroit, and I met his plane at the airport. People were waving to him as we came in on the expressway. There was a ceremony out at River Rouge, and the next day Mr. Mandela and I walked together along the riverfront.”

Aimee Ortiz contributed reporting.


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