Heading into the troubled water that is now the auto industry in Canada, Ken Lewenza, prospective president of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), said he’s steadfast on the union’s position of resisting takeaways.
“We have never ever bargained a wage reduction program,” said Lewenza, who is set to replace Buzz Hargrove next month. The union’s strategy continues to be: “Number one: what is in the best interest of our members? How do you enhance existing wages and benefits?”
After 16 years at the head of Canada’s largest private-sector union, Hargrove is retiring, six months before hitting the union’s mandatory retirement age of 65.
The leadership hand-off is taking place during one of the union’s toughest times. With the Canadian dollar at par with the U.S. dollar, Canadian car plants no longer have an easy advantage over those in the U.S., where workers have been signing off on concessions and two-tier wage structures.
Well before contracts were set to expire next month, Hargrove cut a new contract with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, the first time in the union’s history that bargaining didn’t go right to the strike deadline.
The early deals, which include wage freezes, a cut to vacation pay and the suspension of the cost of living allowance until the end of next year, didn’t head off further trouble, however. The agreement with GM was only two weeks old when the company announced poor sales forced it to stop truck production in Oshawa, Ont., and Ford announced last month it would hold off adding a third shift to a plant in Oakville, Ont.
Still, Hargrove doesn’t regret signing the deals early.
“There is so much insecurity in our workplaces right now — at GM, Chrysler, Ford and the auto-parts industry — that our people are cheering the fact that we went in early,” he said. “No one would want to face bargaining given what has happened since we left bargaining in mid-May.”
Hargrove as militant as ever
Despite all the tough-talk he delivers when the camera’s on, Hargrove is pragmatic. That’s usually not a favourable descriptor in the labour movement and, in an interview with
Canadian HR Reporter
, Hargrove said he’s as militant now as back in 1985 when the union was formed.
“I think that if there’s a struggle out there where workers have to take on a fight, I’m very quick to take it on,” he said.
Asked about characterizations of his approach with employers as non-adversarial and partnership-like, Hargrove’s response was firm.
“I’ve led strikes. I’ve led more wildcat strikes than many union leaders have led strikes, so I don’t know how anyone could say I’m a moderate. When (former Ontario Progressive Conservative premier) Mike Harris attacked the labour law in Ontario, I led community after community to shut down workplaces when we had a community day of action,” he said.
“We’ve had some very tough strikes with some of the largest employers in the world, including General Motors in 1996. So I’d compare my record with anyone else’s in the country.”
Asked about his biggest accomplishment, Hargrove reached back to 1985 when he was part of the executive team that broke away from the United Auto Workers (UAW) over concessions and formed a Canadian union.
“That clearly was the most major decision in my union life and it has worked out extremely well. The UAW in the U.S. has lost over a million members since we left and we’ve doubled our own membership” from 120,000 to 250,000 today, said Hargrove, adding the union gained 100,000 new members since he took over from Bob White as president in 1992.
The largest private-sector union in Canada, the CAW has also extended its reach beyond the auto industry. It now represents workers in the airline, aerospace, rail, casino, retail and health-care sectors.
“We’ve doubled the staff of the union. We’ve doubled the educational program of the union,” said Hargrove. “We spend more money on training our leadership and activists than all the other unions in Canada combined.”
It’s a mark of the union’s success that other unions over the years have opted to merge with the CAW, more notably the 33,000-member Canadian Brotherhood of Railway and the 23-000 strong Retail, Wholesale Canada, said Anil Verma, professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. They see the CAW as a well-resourced, well-staffed union that more importantly was “not afraid of taking employers on,” said Verma. Thanks to the push to expand its reach in the 1990s, the union has improved its chances of weathering troubles in the auto industry, which now accounts for less than 25 per cent of its total membership.
The Magna deal
Hargrove’s pragmatism became most evident last year when he signed a “Framework for Fairness” agreement with Magna. Under the agreement, the auto parts giant, which has successfully fought off repeated union drives, would invite in the union on the condition it gave up the right to strike. The deal unleashed a wave of criticism from other labour leaders, who saw the move as the beginning of the end of a hard-won right.
“The deal almost lit a fuse under the seats of the labour movement. I’ve never seen so much press on a labour issue as then,” said Verma. Hargrove, for his part, not only stands by the deal — he thinks the union should do it again in the right circumstances.
“If a non-union employer like Toyota, for example, is willing to enter into a ‘framework for fairness’ like we did at Magna, we would be stupid not to,” said Hargrove.
What he hopes to gain is “the ability to have an influence on the standards” in sectors where union density is so low that the non-union firms get to set the standards for wages and conditions.
Hargrove brushed off criticism that the deal would tempt other employers to insist on similar agreements.
“That’s just silly,” he said. “We have agreements in over 2,000 workplaces and that’s just one agreement. The unions that criticized this deal, every single one of them has given up the right to strike for third-party arbitration at one point or another.”
Still, “it would be difficult for his union and other unions if other employers use the Magna deal to suggest that the same thing apply to them,” said Lynn Williams, a former president of the United Steelworkers.
Verma said the Magna deal might go badly for the union. But he also held out the possibility that “once in there, it will play an effective role in bringing in rights and benefits.” Only future historians can tell, he said.
An independent streak
One notable characteristic of Hargrove is his ability to play to the media. He played the media better than employers, said Verma, and certainly better than other union leaders, said Williams.
Hargrove also had an independent streak, willing to go against prevailing thinking and incur criticism, whether from the left or the right. Even prior to the Magna deal, he was chastised by the Canadian Labour Congress for union raiding and was later thrown out of the New Democratic Party for suggesting workers vote for whichever candidate, NDP or Liberal, who stood the best chances of winning the riding.
The way he sees it, the labour movement’s emphasis on solidarity often stifles dissent and experimentation. The pressures on the labour movement are many, and they include globalization, pro-management labour laws and the shift of power from working people to corporations.
“We challenge them, but each union has to (challenge them) based on how they can bring their members and their families along, and based on the agenda of the union,” said Hargrove.
New CAW boss
In a 12-2 vote, the Canadian Auto Workers’ national executive board has thrown its support behind Ken Lewenza, effectively calling off what would have been a first-ever leadership contest for the union’s top job.
Lewenza, who has been at the helm of the CAW’s powerful Local 444 in Windsor, Ont., since 1994, said he’ll work with the car companies to improve productivity, increase efficiency and come up with a product that the market wants — “but not on the back of workers.”
Outside the auto industry, he’s eyeing recruitment drives in sectors that have low union representation.
“Our economy is supposed to be moving toward the service industry (which I reject) but why is it that when you think of the retail sector, you think of lower wages and less job security? And in the financial sector, workers are paid better, but what are they making in comparison with what the bosses are making?”
Known for stormy shouting matches laced with expletives, Lewenza has been called bombastic, blustery and intimidating. Lewenza described himself only as “an emotional guy.
“My heart kicks in before my brain sometimes, and eventually the two catch up to each other. But I’m not somebody who creates conflict just for the sake of it.”
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