In Memoriam: Owen Bieber (1929-2020)

(24762) Bieber Remembers King

UAW President Emeritus Owen Bieber passed away yesterday, on February 17, 2020. Bieber was a respected figure in the labor movement, known for his commitment to civil rights and steady leadership during turbulent times for organized labor. Raised near Grand Rapids, MI, he began his career in the labor movement at the age of 19, when he was elected a shop steward of UAW Local 687. By 26, his fellow workers elected him president of his local. He continued to move up in the UAW, eventually becoming the union's International President in 1983. Bieber was the first UAW president without ties to Walter Reuther, and labor’s landscape was more dire than during Reuther’s time. Competition from overseas automakers and anti-labor political forces reduced union membership. But Bieber weathered the storm by negotiating for worker protections and benefits with the Big Three while bringing new sectors of workers into the UAW. A fierce advocate of civil rights, Bieber made waves protesting Apartheid in South Africa. He led marches with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and was arrested picketing outside the South African embassy in Washington. When Nelson Mandela toured America just after his release from prison, the UAW helped fund and organize the visit. After years of supporting the anti-apartheid movement, Bieber had the honor of leading Mandela on a tour of Ford’s River Rouge facility and stood alongside the South African leader when he addressed an enthusiastic crowd at Tiger Stadium wearing a UAW jacket and hat. A man passionate about organized labor and uplifting auto workers, it’s telling that all five of the children Owen had with his wife, Shirley Van Woerkom, followed in their father’s footsteps by working in the auto industry and becoming active in the labor movement.

The records of Owen Bieber’s time as UAW president are open to the public at the Reuther library in the UAW President's Office: Owen Bieber Records. His works are also documented in numerous other collections in the UAW archives.