Former UAW President Owen Bieber dies at 90

Owen F. Bieber (center) with Nelson Mandela (right) at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
Owen F. Bieber (center) with Nelson Mandela (right) at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. (UAW)

DETROIT – Owen F. Bieber, who served as president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union for 12 years, has died at age 90, the union announced Monday.

Bieber served as the UAW’s 7th president from 1983 to 1995.

“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 UAW President Rory L. Gamble in a news release. “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 a native of North Door, Mich. As a young man he worked at McInerney Spring and Wire Company in nearby Grand Rapids, the same auto supply plant where his father worked, the UAW said. 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, according to the union. A year later, at age 19, Bieber’s co-workers elected him Local 687’s shop steward.

During his presidency in the 1980s, Bieber traveled to South Africa twice to help fight apartheid.

“While in South Africa and at the request of a trio of Yale professors, Bieber captured more evidence of the real impact of apartheid when he smuggled images out of the country showing the scarred bodies of people in South Africa who had challenged the country’s apartheid government,” reads a UAW statement. “Bieber and the UAW so passionately fought against the brutally discriminatory system in South Africa that when Nelson Mandela toured the United States after his release from prison in 1990, he insisted on celebrating with UAW Local 600. During that trip, Bieber stood at Mandela’s side at a rally at Tiger Stadium in Detroit where the South African leader again thanked the UAW and the 45,000 people who had gathered at the stadium. During his 2003 visit to Grand Rapids, Archbishop Desmond Tutu singled out Bieber for his years of calling attention to the horrors of apartheid. Bieber was arrested when he marched with Tutu at the South African embassy in Washington in 1986."

He retired at age 65 in 1995.

(Original Caption) Owen Bieber, with glasses, President of the United Auto Workers, is shown at a press conference called to announce a labor-sponsored nationwide consumer boycott against Shell Oil Company products. The AFL-CIO said the boycott was part of an international labor movement protest against South Africa and its refusal to take action against apartheid.

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Dave Bartkowiak Jr. is the digital managing editor for ClickOnDetroit.