Woodcock: America’s presence in Peking

William Lowther February 19 1979

Woodcock: America’s presence in Peking

William Lowther February 19 1979

Woodcock: America’s presence in Peking


William Lowther

In en Woodcock is a dealer. A haggler in contracts and clauses. Lean as a bean pole, mean as a junkyard dog when it comes to striking a bargain, he has just negotiated himself into history. For Woodcock, the fiery-tempered former labor leader, is now sure to become the first United States ambassador in Peking since Mao Tse-tung’s Communist forces took control of mainland China in 1949. Nominated last month by President Jimmy Carter, he is expected to be confirmed by the Senate in little more than a formality, then open a new China embassy on March 1.

As president of the United Auto Workers from 1970 to 1977—when he retired to head the low-level U.S. liaison office in Peking—Woodcock is wellknown to Canadians. For many years he masterminded Canadian labor contracts with General Motors and his professional figure was frequently seen at union functions across the country.

It seems at first to be a curious appointment—a hard-nosed labor boss who learned his diplomacy on the picket lines asked to handle the ultra-sensitive, almost fragile reopening of superpower relations. Woodcock is said to have the shortest of fuses and freo quently used his explosive nature as a | factor in dealing with the boardroom moguls of Detroit. However, with an ad1 mirable display of self-restraint, he has ° adapted to what is sometimes arrogantly referred to as “chopstick politics” with remarkable success. So much so that it is now widely speculated that his old viper’s tongue approach was no more than tactic and that he is more comfortable with himself than ever before, acting as a discreet, deliberate and delicate-natured diplomat.

Interestingly, there were signals to this side of his nature in the past when he was dealing with Canadian affairs.

Robert White, UAW international vicepresident for Canada, recalls: “Leonard always showed a real appreciation that the Canadian section of the union was not just a separate office but that we were a different country. He was very knowledgeable about Canadian affairs and showed an understanding of the Quebec situation. He participated in the

1973-76 auto negotiations in Canada. I can assure you that he has a great deal of respect on this side of the border.” Loosening to a more personal appraisal, White added: “Leonard is a very hard person to get to know. I don’t know anyone who feels close to him. Sometimes he is a little impatient. I have been to meetings with him where you would have left believing he had a short fuse indeed. He won’t let people go on talking if they’re only talking for the


sake of talking. He’s a loner really. That’s not to say that he doesn’t enjoy himself at a party because he does. But he doesn’t seem to have close friends as such.”

Woodcock, who in his horn-rimmed glasses, modish sideburns and dark, well-cut suits appears to be the stereotype university academic, turned 68 this week. Under his union’s policy of retirement at 65 he might have expected to be on pension in Detroit right now if he had not travelled south in the spring of ’76 to campaign for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. That changed everything. Carter was running in the Florida Democratic primary against Alabama Governor George Wallace, a foe of organized labor. Carter and Woodcock, both introverted but with strong egos, formed an alliance. As a result, Carter got heavy labor support throughout his campaign and Woodcock was later given Peking, not just as a payoff but also as a challenge.

In every possible way, Woodcock has made the most of it. He arrived in the modest and isolated liaison office in Peking in July, 1977. Assigned to carry out Washington’s instructions to the letter, his initiative was stifled by protocol, his ambition put on a leash by the state department. The object was to bring about the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China, but the timetable was being set by heads of state with whom he was to have little contact.

His tightly knit staff of Americans in China regarded him at first with suspicion. They half expected a back-slapping archetype of labor leader, totally unsuited to a job he had presumably been given as a matter of political expediency. But six months after Woodcock took office, one China watcher reported back to Washington: “He has blended an odd mixture of persistence, warmth, shyness and intellectual energy to win the respect of many Chinese and the admiration of the little Peking colony of Americans.” The ambassador-in-themaking himself told an interviewer: “The whole cultural atmosphere is entirely different from Detroit. It is a closed society. But I do like the Chinese people and in a very simple sense I’ve come to enjoy my life in Peking.”

Woodcock was separated from his first wife, Loula, nearly 10 years ago and soon after he left for the Far East they were divorced. But he did not stay lonely for long. A few weeks after his arrival in Peking, the liaison office nurse, 35-year-old Sharon Tuohy, gave him a gamma globulin shot to ward off hepatitis. That somewhat unlikely beginning led to romance. Last April they

were married in Peking’s Chaoyang civil-affairs office, under a photograph of Mao. After the ceremony he said: “Sharon and I would be happy if this [American marriage in Peking] was another small step toward normalization.” He has two daughters, Leslie, 34, who teaches labor history at the University of Michigan, and Janet, 30, who does drug rehabilitation work in Boston, and a son, John, 25, who works in the engineering department of Chrysler Corp.

Woodcock was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of an English immigrant. When he was 3, the family moved to Germany where his father was on contract to install machinery. But no sooner had they settled than the First World War erupted. Woodcock senior was interned as an enemy alien while young Len and his mother were shipped to England. He grew up and received elementary and secondary school education in Northampton. Reunited after the war, the family decided to stay on in Britain. In 1926 they moved back to the United States, to Detroit, where Len, then 15, attended Detroit City College, now Wayne State University. He planned to become an accountant but the Depression killed that idea and he ended up as a machine assembler.

“I worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, for 35 cents an hour,” Woodcock recalls, in the clipped, measured tone which reveals his British background. He quickly became a labor organizer. Then in December, 1936, he was stricken with tuberculosis. It took him two years to recover, and the illness returned for one bad bout in 1969. He still must watch his health very carefully.

In 1940 he joined the UAW staff and became close to the near-legendary president Walter Reuther. He was vicepresident in 1970 when Reuther was killed in a plane crash. Labor organizations, notoriously undemocratic, are hotbeds of infighting, but Woodcock took over the nation’s second largest trade union with hardly a ripple. It had nearly IV2 million members and faced major contract negotiations. Undaunted, he made demands of General Motors that he was determined would “set the tone for the industry” and ordered a strike that cost $160 million, lasted 67 days and left the union $50 million in debt. But in the end, GM gave in to key union demands.

After the strike, Woodcock rebuilt the treasury, brought the UAW through the recession of 1974-75 and won innovative contract provisions that other unions lacked. He retired as an acknowledged master bargainer, re-

spected by membership and management alike.

While leading t union he had little time for world affairs but since his appointment to Peking “has really done his homework,” as a young state department China expert put it. “I managed to read more books during my first seven months in Peking than I did during seven years as president of the UAW,” Woodcock said recently.

Clearly he has been a successful diplomat. The Chinese are pleased with his withdrawn personality, preferring a retiring manner to gregarious socializing. Six months ago, when Carter began serious negotiations with the Peking hierarchy to bring about normalization, Woodcock worked near-perfectly as the point man. “We supplied all of the positions and detailed responses,” a state department official said, “but he provided excellent advice and insight on how to proceed.”

When Carter made his dramatic announcement of the China breakthrough last month it was considered a personal triumph for Woodcock. It was by no means certain that he would get the prestigious and influential ambassadorial appointment, however—Energy Secretary James Schlesinger was strongly tipped—but the White House decided to stay with its proven winner.

Says Woodcock: “Official meetings with Chinese leaders are highly stylized in the sense that both sides are very careful how they put things. But when [in labor negotiations) you get to the critical phase of collective bargaining, both sides also tend to be very careful what they say, and sometimes you have to listen very carefully for what is not said as well as what is said.”

A great many negotiating sessions lie ahead. As ambassador, Woodcock will be expected to help smooth the way for American businessmen, the very management leaders he once railed against. He may also find himself saying “no” to the Peking politburo as it requests weapons and nuclear technology that Washington will not give. In the meantime he is learning Chinese from an official Peking instructor. “The man told me once—I think he considered it a compliment—that it was remarkable a man of my age could remember so well.” Added the ambassador-designate: “I would not accept any ambassadorial post where there is no challenge. The United States has made so many mistakes in the Far East, I want to be a small part of making things better.” £>