The role Douglas A. Fraser plays in the Chrysler Corporation's fight to survive will determine whether the election of the United Autoworkers president to Chrysler's corporate board will set a pattern other union executives will try to follow.
Mr. Fraser became the first union official to be elected to the board of an American corporation on May 13, when more than 98 percent of 44,383,505 shareholder votes supported a recommendation by Lee A. Iacocca, Chrysler's chairman, that UAW's top executive be named one of 20 directors.
The UAW made a seat on the board a prerequisite for financial consessions to Chrysler when it settled with the company for $403 million less than it had won in contract bargaining with General Motors and Ford.
At that time, the union said that the board seat was needed to protect the interests of workers during Chrysler's efforts to stave off bankruptcy. In taking his seat, Mr. Fraser said that while that was true, "basically, when you represent the interests of the workers, you also represent the interests of shareholders."
Unions have strongly opposed participation in corporate management. But this attitude may be fading.
Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, is lukewarm at best on the subject of corporate directors from labor's ranks. He says, "I consider it fundamentally wrong to think of board membership as a substitute for collective bargaining. . . ."
Co-determination, fairly common abroad, has never taken hold in the United States. Labor officials believe that being part of a company's decisionmaking process could weaken their adversary role at bargaining time or in processing worker grievances.
Unlike Chrysler president Iacocca, GM chairman Thomas A. Murphy appears opposed to having a director from UAW.
Unions and corporations that face financial problems could follow Chrysler's lead. Whether they do is likely to depend on how successful Mr. Fraser is in representing the company's workers.