Longtime UAW President Owen Bieber, who fought apartheid, dies at age 90

Outgoing United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger (L) gets a hug from Owen Bieber, a former UAW president, at the 2010 UAW Constitutional Convention June 17, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. Gettelfinger, who served as UAW president for the past eight years, was replaced by newly-elected President Bob King. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Owen Bieber, who served as UAW president from 1983 to 1995, died on Monday at age 90. He was perhaps best known for taking a stand against South African apartheid.

His son, Ron Bieber, currently serves as Michigan AFL-CIO president. 

Ron Bieber

“My father was born into hard work and trade unionism, and through his mentorship he passed those traits to the next generation. He led the UAW at a challenging time for auto workers and all working people, and he fought for social change in this country and around the world,” Ron Bieber said. “His loss is felt deeply by his family and all of those whose lives he touched. Owen Bieber left behind a world that is better off because of his activism and dedication to service to others.”

Owen Bieber was the UAW’s seventh president.

“Owen Bieber’s death is a loss for our union and all working people. He was a man of incredible leadership. He was not afraid of tough battles or taking a stand on controversial issues,” said current UAW President Rory Gamble. “He was not only a devoted trade unionist but a social activist whose impact was felt around the world. Whether it was his support to end apartheid in South Africa or in Poland, Owen stood on the right side of history for the nation and the world.”

Bieber was born in North Dorr, Mich., on Dec. 28, 1929. After graduating from Catholic grade school and high school in 1948, he went to work at McInerney Spring and Wire Company in nearby Grand Rapids, the same auto supply plant where his father worked. In 1939, he co-founded UAW Local 687, the first UAW local in the Grand Rapids city limits. His first job was bending by hand the thick border wire on car seats.

In 1972, Bieber was appointed director of UAW Region 1D, a position he held until 1980, when he was elected vice president. He served as director of the union’s General Motors Department, the union’s largest department with more than 400,000 members.

Bieber was elected UAW president in 1983, following Douglas Fraser. He served four consecutive terms and has been credited with diversifying the union and including public and private employers. He led the first trade unionist delegation to visit China, according to the UAW statement regarding his death. There he met with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to acknowledge International Labor Day.

Bieber traveled to apartheid South Africa twice, including in 1986 as a member of a State Department advisory committee led by President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz. The committee recommended sanctions to pressure the South African government to replace the notorious government with a nonracial, democratic system.

Nelson Mandela | Wikimedia Commons

On Feb. 17, 1989, Bieber started a 48-hour fast to push back against apartheid in South Africa. 

“It sends a message to the South African government that the world is watching,” he told the Detroit Free Press at the time. 

Bieber also played a lead role in helping to bring recently released South African activist Nelson Mandela to Detroit in a fundraising effort for African National Congress on June 28, 1990.  

“Owen Bieber dedicated his entire life to fighting for Michigan’s working families,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tweeted on Monday. “His leadership made our state a better place to live, work, and raise a family.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.