Closeup/Trade Unionism

Labor’s gain

Dennis McDermott is no Joe Morris. And that’s good

Warren Gerard March 20 1978
Closeup/Trade Unionism

Labor’s gain

Dennis McDermott is no Joe Morris. And that’s good

Warren Gerard March 20 1978

Labor’s gain

Closeup/Trade Unionism

Dennis McDermott is no Joe Morris. And that’s good

Warren Gerard

Dennis McDermott is not pleased. The receptionist sitting at a desk in front of the mural on the fifth floor of the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) building on Riverside Drive in Ottawa has indifferently inquired, “May I help you?” He has been CLC general vice-president for the past 10 years and next month, at the congress convention in Quebec City, he will be elected—some say crowned—president of the 2.3-million-member body that claims to be the voice of the nation’s workers. McDermott had expected recognition, deference. “I know my way around here,” he snaps, briefly glaring at the receptionist. She shrugs and he looks at the mural depicting workers toiling at various occupations. “I think I’m going to have to do something about that.” It’s not clear whether he’s talking about the mural or the receptionist, but it is perfectly clear that there will be changes at the CLC.

The shake-up that will follow the convention’s close on April 7 will reach beyond the CLC’S sleepy hall into the country’s fractious trade union movement. McDermott, at 55, the Canadian director and international vice-president of the powerful United Auto Workers, is an exceptionally strong leader—an earthy advocate, a flashy, gutter-talking intellectual. He is a trade unionist to his very soul. He will be heard.

It was decided over a few phone calls, a few letters written on his behalf, that McDermott—his mind at last made up— would assume the leadership of the CLC. Then in mid-December over lunch at Ottawa’s Château Laurier Hotel the 30member CLC executive council (only 24 were present), representing Canada’s major unions, voted unanimously to support McDermott. Don Montgomery, secretarytreasurer of the congress, and vice-presidents Shirley Carr and Julien Major had been thinking of challenging McDermott, but by the time the hors d’oeuvres were on the table they had decided to run for safety on the McDermott slate. That was that.

McDermott will replace the retiring Joe Morris, a plodding cliché of a union leader, a stolid, slow-talking mumbler who hasn’t been up to the task in his current two-year tenure to lead labor, especially through wage and price controls. Morris has developed a taste for international affairs and will finish his term as chairman of the governing body of the International Labor Organization. “The impression Joe Morris conveys shores up the prejudices Canada has about trade unionists,” says Stephen Lewis, recently retired leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party and one of McDermott’s best friends. “It’s not

simply a visual sense. It’s a much more important matter of language, of apologetics, of all the old rhetoric, which seems to me to be defensive, rationalizing, self-serving and self-centred. Dennis McDermott will be self-serving in the sense that he is a trade unionist, but he will convey issues in a way

which will make everybody sit up and think. It will not be pedestrian, it will not be the old stuff. It isn’t just a visual change, it’s a freshness of language, a very lively intellect.”

The visual change will be startling. Morris is portly, slow-moving, funereal in dress. McDermott is trim, energetic, and renowned for his flamboyant clothing, the expensive but loud shirts, three buttons open at the neck exposing a hairy chest and gold pendant, usually worn under a tasteful suit. He likes trinkets, bracelets and rings. He’s been advised, some say by Morris, to dress more conservatively and adopt a more statesmanlike stance, but he has refused to tone down the act. Y et, today, he is suited and tied conservatively. He’s in a meeting behind closed doors on the fifth floor of the congress building with a dozen other top union leaders. They are rehearsing their lines for an afternoon session with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

McDermott and Trudeau are no strangers. They have known each other for several years. McDermott has dined at 24 Sussex. He was one of six special guests on Trudeau’s visit to Washington last year when the Prime Minister addressed a joint meeting of Congress. More recently, he was invited to Trudeau’s dinner for United States Vice-President Walter Mondale.

This thing between McDermott and Trudeau, is a curious relationship: cobra and mongoose. “He’s an extremely intelligent man,” McDermott is saying, “extremely able, self-confident to the point of insufferable arrogance, and he’ll dig a ditch for you. He’s absolutely goddamn merciless. He’ll even try to fool you. He’ll say, ‘We’re not going to discuss that. You don’t have to worry about that.’ Then in the middle of dinner he’ll say, ‘Let’s hear from Dennis on so and so’—the very thing he said he’s not going to discuss.”

McDermott recalls that one night before a meeting with Trudeau about three years ago he was met at the Ottawa airport by a friend who was a labor department deputy minister. The man invited McDermott to dinner and told him he had been instructed on behalf of Trudeau to ask McDermott not to discuss the auto pact. McDermott agreed. “The next day at the meeting Trudeau opened by saying: ‘Well, Mr. McDermott’s here, I guess we better talk about the auto pact.’ And this poor S.O.B. I had dinner with the night before just about fell off his chair. I said to myself, ‘If you want confrontation, you asked for it, I didn’t.’ I said something about God’s on our side and I produced editorials from The Globe and Mail and other Eastern publications and I said, ‘When these bastards are writing editorials favoring our position, I know God’s on our side.’ ”

Trudeau, as McDermott’s story goes, told an aide to fetch the file of editorials from the West—all of them supporting Trudeau’s argument and opposing parity and higher wages for workers in the East. “I just looked at him and said, ‘What do you worry about the Western editorials for? You’ve got as many votes out there as I have.’ That really got his goat. He got madder than an S.O.B.”

It’s now 12:30 p.m. The labor leaders, including McDermott, Morris, Montgomery, Carr and Major, have filed into a fourth-floor conference room in the Langevin block on Wellington Street opposite the Parliament Buildings. Trudeau has been joined at the round conference table by Finance Minister Jean Chrétien, House Leader Allan MacEachen, Treasury Board President Robert Andras, Labor Minister John Munro and Trade Minister Jack Horner. This is not a wine and steak session. They talk over finger sandwiches, tea, coffee or milk. Trudeau tells them that the economy is in terrible shape. They knew that. The talks are the first since last July when the CLC broke off tripartite discussions—labor, business and government—because Trudeau wouldn’t lift wage and price controls. Now that he is, on April 14, McDermott and friends tell the Prime Minister they have no intention of cooperating in any post-control agency to monitor wages and prices.

Andras is talking about the public service sector and how it should be restrained. He’s using the argument of comparability based on a relationship with the private sector. “I don’t know of any negotiation in this world where you don’t use comparability,” McDermott tells Andras. “And when you use it unfairly we call it cherry picking. You compare what you want to compare and ignore what you want to ignore. Where have you been all these years?”

The meeting ends at 3:20 p.m. Munro goes before the television cameras and says nothing. “We haven’t anything to tell you now, maybe later,” he tells the reporters who have been waiting four hours. The conference room door opens and McDermott steps into the television lights. “Where do you go from here, Mr. McDermott?” a reporter asks, thrusting a microphone into his face. “I’m going to the john,” McDermott replies.

In a cab on the way to the airport, he says: “We told them that when you go out in front of that goddamn camera you don’t open your big mouth and say we’re in agreement on this, this and this. Just cool that one. Just say that we reached no conclusions and we intend to have further discussions.”

At the airport, after a quick scotch and soda, we bump into Jack Horner who’s taking the same flight to Toronto. Horner smiles a greeting at McDermott but McDermott looks right through him. He doesn’t like Horner. “You might go and spirit a brilliant S.O.B. from the other side, even that is a bit unethical in my terms, but when you go and scrape the bottom of the barrel just for the sake of getting it, that’s something else. Trudeau knows better than that. It makes it that much worse when you know he knows better.”

It’s the next day. He’s dressed in a boardroom blue suit. An embroidered red rose, the symbol of Windsor, the city of roses, stands out like a stop sign on his left lapel. His tie looks like it was made from leftover material for a floral-patterned couch. In the morning he has been to the American Motors plant in Brampton for a television interview on the assembly line. He has been invited to lunch after the interview by Bill Pickett, the AMC president who sells his own cars on TV. A PR man explains the luncheon invitation is a courtesy because McDermott was in the plant. It’s strange now, after all these years as adversaries, that the two men are meeting for the first time.

They get along well, though they couldn’t be more opposite. Pickett talks in clipped terms, the way a company president should, about the economy, how it should be heated up, even to a two-digit inflation rate, to create more jobs and head off a revolution by the unemployed. McDermott grins but holds his tongue. After all, Pickett is picking up the tab. After lunch, after McDermott has eaten too much quiche and strawberries and cream, the conversation turns to wine. Pickett, a native of Toledo, defends Canadian wine in diplomatic terms. So does his public relations man. “Yeah, I know,” McDermott says, “it’s all made yesterday with a headache guaranteed in every glass.” It’s now midaftemoon and McDermott is seated behind his handsome desk in a spacious office in the new one-million-dollar glass and steel UAW headquarters

tucked away in a nondescript industrial park in the hinterlands north of Toronto. The office is about twice the size of the one he will occupy in Ottawa as president of the CLC. It is filled with memorabilia—a

collection of union buttons, a poster from the California grape boycott, photographs, books, a bust of John F. Kennedy, a model gold Cadillac on a coffee table, the souvenirs that executives, whether union or management, accumulate over the years.

It would seem that McDermott might be giving up more with the UAW than he will gain from becoming CLC president. He could take a cut in pay from about $45,000 a year to $39,000 (though there is talk of boosting the CLC president’s pay) and many within his own union, especially in the United States, were predicting that he would be the next president of the UAW, the first Canadian president. At the CLC, he will take over a lacklustre, floundering federation that has been accurately described as the senate of Canadian labor. McDermott will assume an office with a title but without power and as Morris’ two-year term ends, the congress has wound down into a state of apathy. Its federation of autonomous unions and provincial affiliates, whose solidarity is a fragile thing at best, has become a fragmented, bickering family. The CLC’S only innovative policy in the controls period was the manifesto on tripartitism—the proposal for cooperation among labor, business and government. That has been abandoned, even by one of its early supporters, McDermott, who now believes the adversary system is too deeply rooted in the Canadian way of doing things to be replaced by a form of consultation.

The prospects of pulling the CLC together appear bleak. “Some of my friends say, ‘You must be a bit of a masochist. You don’t really want to walk into this mess.’ But somebody’s got to do the job. It might as well be me. It’s a hell of a mess. I know the whole thing may turn out to be an exercise in futility.”

There is a deeper reason. McDermott has chosen Canada. “I’m a nationalist in the sense that I’m a Canadian, that I have a sense of pride about that. I don’t see myself as an American and I don’t think you can kid yourself that you can go over there (as president of the UAW) and not become American or Americanized. Anyway, who wants to live in Detroit?”

His commitment to human rights will be quickly reflected in CLC policy and rhetoric. His first position in the union movement was on a human rights committee he formed in 1948 at the Massey-Harris plant in Toronto where he was a welder. He walked the picket lines with Cesar Chavez in the grape boycott in California’s Coachilla Valley chanting Viva la causa, viva la causa. He describes it as a “spiritual, traumatic” experience. He was arrested several times and on one occasion on the way to a United Farm Workers meeting, carrying a Canadian flag as a symbol of international worker unity, he received 10 traffic tickets in four blocks. The cops were on the other side.

He is the author of UAW policy on Confederation, “I believe in the right to selfdetermination. I don’t advocate separation, I hope they don’t separate, but if they do I’ll understand why. The word separation is in our vocabulary because there has been 100 years of inequity, persecution and certainly exploitation. The rest of us are responsible, but the political institutions are more responsible than others. They knew the deal they made in Confederation and they didn’t carry it out. I think Trudeau’s leadership has been dismal. But then he’s from the upper crust of Uncle Toms in Quebec.”

As we talk, the door to his office opens, and a secretary, Claire, leaning on the door frame, tells him he had better think about getting home soon if he wants anything to eat before a night meeting. “What are we having?” he says. “Eggs and bacon,” she answers, leaving. Claire, 29, dark-haired, attractive, intelligent and tough, formerly his mistress, is now his wife. They were both married. Claire had no children. McDermott has five. He recalls that Claire told her husband and he told his wife on the same weekend that they wanted divorces. “It was easy for Claire, it was a bloodletting for me.”

Talking about his children reminds him of his own childhood. He says he is not conscious that his early experiences or his service time in the British navy influenced his basic rebellious nature, his concern for human rights. He was born in Portsmouth of Irish parents. In the Depression years, his family ate in Salvation Army soup kitchens and his father worked at jobs that “Englishmen reserved for Irishmen.” He left school at 14, but the quick-witted mind, the maverick in him, developed before then.

“In school I remember the map of the British Empire was colored in red and the teacher was always sticking it down our throats about the great riches we had and how envious the rest of the world was. I said, ‘If we have all this wealth and we’re the greatest, like all those red smears on the map indicate, how come we’re so poor and my dad doesn’t have a job?’ And the teacher wrote in my report card that this child has Bolshevik tendencies.”

At 17, he joined the navy and during World War II saw the world twice around. He served on a destroyer on the dreaded Murmansk run and later became a commando and a frogman and hated every minute of it. “I saw a lot of action, but it’s one period of my life I don’t like to talk about. It was a time of waste.” And there was his first successful organizing attempt. “I was on one ship that had a lieutenant who was a paint-a-maniac. He wanted to paint everything. So we had a cell. We even had an insignia—a pig’s head in a paint pot on fire. You know, the nickname for a British officer was pig, which I think is a pretty perfect name. Before you got your membership in the cell you had to throw six paint pots and six brushes overboard.”

McDermott is at home, in his six-level, rented suburban townhouse, after the long day. He shows me around and gives a capsule history of where and when he bought the paintings on his walls. He has resumed painting after having stopped several years ago. As a painter he makes a good union leader. I still find it difficult to understand why he wants to be president of the CLC. Perhaps it’s a sense of duty. Perhaps it’s for the reasons suggested by Stephen Lewis— that he’s been chafing for a long time under the indignity of having to take the rap for being a trade unionist without ever explaining to the world why he’s proud to be a trade unionist.

“If I go to a cocktail party,” McDermott is saying, “I am introduced as a trade union representative and people say, ‘That’s interesting, and what union are you with and what position do you occupy?’ Then I have to spend the first two hours exploding myths and stereotypes and defending my very right to exist. I’ve developed a counterargument. I first of all discover the occupation of the person who is trying to pin me down. Suppose I discover he is in drug manufacturing. I accuse him of selling narcotics to teen-agers, ripping off the public, all that sort of thing. He says, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not like that!’ Then I say, ‘I’m not Jimmy Hoffa, either.’ ”

That could be it. The CLC will become Dennis McDermott’s forum.J?