Admirers have nicknamed him “the White Knight” because of his ambitious crusade on behalf of organized labor over the past 35 years. And Robert White, the 52-year-old head of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW), has probably won enough victories to earn the accolade, battling such corporate giants as Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca to gain concessions for the 150,000 workers under his direction. But recently, after he was involved in two bitter labor disputes which affected 27,000 workers, some observers concluded that chinks were starting to show in the White Knight’s armor.
Tactics: White’s problems began late last March, when a 23,000-member Newfoundland-based fishermen’s union severed its affiliation with the Washington-based United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) in order to join the CAW. Other Canadian union leaders then accused White of using raiding tactics to expand his base. For its part, the UFCW promptly took its local to court, tying up its financial assets. As a result, the
fishermen resigned from the UFCW to build another union that will eventually merge with the CAW, which meanwhile is supporting them financially. Later, on June 23, White took 4,000 de Havilland Aircraft Co. of Canada Ltd. workers out on strike after negotiations broke down with representatives of the Seattle-based parent company Boeing Co. over issues of job security and seniority rights. “It’s going to be a long and difficult strike,” White acknowledged, “and it’s one that I wish we didn’t have to have.”
But White said that both situations resulted from U.S.-based interests trying to impose their way of operating on the Canadian labor force. He said that the fishermen’s union controversy was a case in point: “Here you have a grassroots organization that started with 69 people meeting in a church basement who built their union into a social and political force. All of a sudden, as the result of mergers and amalgamations, they found themselves in a union that wouldn’t respond to democratic change or demands for Canadian autonomy, a union that ap-
peared to be moving away from the social dynamics of what the fishermen’s union was all about.” And, he said, the Canadian government is encouraging such actions in its push toward free trade, which, according to
White, will put pressure on managers and workers to adopt an Americaninspired, survival-of-the-fittest, “Rambo” attitude. Declared White: “People are saying now that if we’re the most competitive, we’re going to get the jobs. This really is, for want of a better word, bullshit. All our eggs are in the big U.S. basket today—and that eagle’s going to sit on them, it seems to me.”
White added that American management does not hesitate to protect its own interests at the expense of Canadian concerns, and he cited the de Havilland dispute to support his claim. He said that management’s approach reflects an increasing tendency on the part of corporations to bring their own demands to the bargaining table. “Ten days before our strike, the company tabled 14 pages of changes to the collective agreement that they wanted,” White said. “They said that they had to have each and every one of those noneconomic demands before they would ratify the agreement.” Declared White: “That made me angry. Collective bargaining is meant for the progress of workers, not management.” Said Boeing spokesman Craig Martin: “The survival of the company is at stake. If we don’t deliver the planes on time and at a reasonable cost, someone else will.” Added Martin: “Our position is that job security is created by being competitive in the marketplace.” But White says that when companies call for flexibility and co-operation on the part of labor to promote competition, “it is just an excuse to take back concessions already made, and it puts enormous pressure on the bargaining table that doesn’t belong there.” Frustration: White, “a great believer in dialogue,” said that he finds it difficult to deal with the take-it-orleave-it attitude that, he says, is part of new style management. Old adversary Iacocca was 9 “brash, tough and vin1 dictive as hell, but 5 there was a reason to z like him: he came to get I things done.” But White said that when he was negotiating with the Boeing representives, “I yelled and screamed at them, and they didn’t respond. Then they went back to Seattle.” Added White, in a comment that underscores his frustration with what he calls the “dogeat-dog” approach to current labor relations: “The toughest opponents are those who walk away.”
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