Bob White urges union leaders to stand firm, even in difficult times
THE VOICE FROM LEFT FIELD
Bob White urges union leaders to stand firm, even in difficult times
Labor Day is a day for trade unionists to put on a happy face. But as Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) president Bob White walked in a light rain at the front of a parade of 20,000 marchers in downtown Toronto last week, he was putting on a very brave face. Union members in Toronto and across the country had little to celebrate this year. Battered by a three-year-old economic downturn, many are accepting wage freezes—or even rollbacks—in the hopes of saving their jobs. In the Toronto parade, even White and federal NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin chuckled as marchers jeered a likeness of Ontario Premier Bob Rae sported by a provincial civil servant—a sign of the growing strains between unions and the political party that has traditionally championed their cause. As the march neared its conclusion at an entrance to the Canadian National Exhibition fairgrounds, several onlookers stepped off the sidewalk and swung in behind White, his 11-year-old daughter Robyn and the other union leaders in the parade. But White did not misinterpret that as a sudden outburst of enthusiasm for unions. “People always join the parade near the end,” he said with a smile. “You get into the Exhibition free.”
All joking aside, White, 58, concedes that he is struggling to rally the congress’s 2.2 million members around the “no concessions” mantra that he has preached throughout his 40 years as a union activist. As the chief negotiator for Canadian autoworkers during the 1981-1982 recession, he gained notoriety by balking at demands for rollbacks by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, and by splitting away from the U.S-based United Auto Workers union (UAW) in 1985. White himself still draws cheers from the rank and file at functions like last week’s parade. But even he acknowledges that the latest recession has battered organized labor much harder than the last downturn. Average annual contract wage settlements for unionized workers declined to a meagre 0.1 per cent in the second quarter of this year. Membership in large industrial unions is eroding dramatically as Canadian corporations continue to slash costs and employees. Organizing workers in the growing but low-paid service sector, in turn, is proving to be difficult and costly. “The big thing stopping it is fear,” said White. “Fear that you’re going to lose your job and a cynicism that the labor movement can’t do anything for you.” In the coming weeks, Canadian unionists face two big tests of their unity and bargaining strength. The first is the current round of contract talks between the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) and the Big Three domestic automakers—General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Last month, the union chose Chrysler as its strike target should the two sides fail to reach a settlement when the current three-year contract governing 50,000 workers at all three carmakers expires on
Sept. 14. Of the three, Chrysler is the healthiest financially, and as the deadline approached last week, CAW leaders were still seeking wage increases, higher pensions, larger income security funds for laid-off workers and reduced work time—all in an effort to spread the wealth in an industry that is starting to recover. But even White warned that shutting down huge sections of the industry in Canada—and in the United States—with a strike could slow an economic recovery. “I’ve been there,” White said. “People say you have the power. Well, you also have the power to shoot yourself in the foot.”
The second challenge is winning rank-andfile support for the New Democrats in the federal election. Union leaders have rarely succeeded at convincing much more than one-quarter of their members to vote NDP in federal and provincial elections, according to the CLC itself. During the Toronto parade last week, both White and McLaughlin told Maclean’s that the bitter disputes this summer between public sector unions and NDP governments in Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have caused workers to question their links with the party. McLaughlin, who was greeted politely by marchers, said that “in any family, you are going to have some fights.” White, in turn, conceded that some former activists will likely sit out the election. He also said that the bitter split with
Rae has taught union leaders that “you can’t elect a social democratic government and just sit back on your heels.” But he added that he has already filmed campaign videos for the party, which will be sent to individual unions. “There is a real possibility of a minority government in this election,” White said. “So the voices of NDP members of Parliament are going to be very important.”
Despite widespread gloom among union members, and the disputes with the NDP premiers, White sounds remarkably upbeat. That, he says, is partly because he has watched unions wrestle with similar problems throughout his career. He arrived in Canada from Ireland with his family at the age of 14. The following year he dropped out of high school and began working at a small woodworking plant in Woodstock, Ont., 125 km west of Toronto. There he joined the UAW, and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a full-time organizer for the union in Ontario in his mid-20s. However, his devotion soon exacted a heavy personal toll. In his 1987 autobiography, Hard Bargains, White said that he “began a pattern, which has persisted, of having almost no spare time for almost anything else.” He and his first wife, Carolynne, separated in 1976 after 19 years of marriage. White said that when he left, his two teenage sons, Todd and Shawn, “were crying and Todd was cursing me.” But White, now remarried, says that since then he has reconciled with them.
White grappled with the issue of plant closures long before Canadian manufacturers began fleeing to the United States and Mexico in large numbers in the 1980s. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, many companies closed plants in heavily unionized Ontario towns such as Windsor, and relocated in towns like Barrie where the unions were less pervasive. White and other union organizers followed.
Similarly, in bargaining with the beleaguered Big Three automakers in the early 1980s, White wrestled with the question that is now vexing many other union leaders: should they agree to concessions to save jobs? During those negotiations, White developed a reputation as a tough and foulmouthed negotiator, a style captured in expletive-laden tirades in Final Offer, a 1985 National Film Board documentary about his contract talks with General Motors. He still advocates a hard line. Said White: “I know it’s hard for the worker who gets up on Monday morning and sits around the breakfast table and says,
The company says that I have to take a dollar-an-hour wage cut or they’ll close the plant.’ ”
But White added: “People have to understand that that dollar an hour doesn’t guarantee you long-term security, it doesn’t increase productivity and it won’t solve the economic problems of the country.”
White also remains adamantly opposed to wage and job cuts in the public sector, even though government deficits are soaring. “Sure the deficit is a problem. But can you solve it short-term by cutting and burning?” White asked. “Unless we have growth in the economy and job creation, all of this is not going to work.” He also rejects the argument that Canadians must accept a lower standard of living to compete internationally in a new era of global free trade. “Globalization is a term coined by corporations,” White said. “There is still a major role for national governments. There are still governments that are requiring national conduct from them.”
That kind of hardline rhetoric still wins ap-
plause from many of the union faithful, but it does not appear to be winning over many new converts. Overall, 37 per cent of Canada’s labor force belonged to unions in 1992. Although that is more than double the proportion in the United States, it is roughly the same level that has prevailed in Canada since the mid-1970s. And despite the hardships caused by the recession, most Canadians still clearly distrust unions. In the annual Maclean’s/Decima poll published in January, only 13 per cent of respondents said that they looked to unions most to look after their best economic interests, compared with 27 per cent who named government and 53 per cent who said business. Decima Research senior vice-president Michael Sullivan said that public support for unions increased slightly in the late 1980s, but has since fallen back to “historic low levels.” White aims to overcome that distrust by forging alliances with social action groups outside the labor movement representing women, visible minorities, gays and lesbians and others. “If you look at a lot of minimumwage jobs now, many are being done by immigrant workers. If the whole labor movement looks like lily-white men, people can’t relate to that.” White acknowledges that many of his own members are wary of branching out too far. But he points back to the 1960s, when UAW president Walter Reuther and other labor leaders took strong stands on civil rights and other causes. Said White: ‘You saw them identifying with progressive issues. The labor movement was seen not just as an interest group taking care of employed workers who pay dues.”
As for his personal plans, White is much cagier. Even with the NDP now in disarray and sagging in the polls, he dismisses any suggestion of entering politics. He repeats a joke he has told often: “I’ve always said I’d love to be prime minister of Canada. But I’d never make it through the apprenticeship.” His personal life is still hectic. After White’s first marriage collapsed, he married Marilyne Kuhn, a flight attendant whom he met at a CLC convention in Quebec City in 1976, where she served as a delegate from the Canadian Air Line Flight Attendants Association. Since then, she has also climbed through the union ranks. In 1991, she began working as a full-time representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which had absorbed her old union. Marilyne, 47, now negotiates and supervises contracts for a living just as her husband once did—although she says that she never swears at the bargaining table.
White was elected president of the CLC last year, so he now spends most of his week in Ottawa. He maintains a furnished apartment in the downtown Market district of the city. White jogs in the morning—three miles a day. However, during the week, White often flies to meetings or speaking engagements in several cities. Marilyne also travels extensively for her job, so the couple see each other mainly on weekends. “We’re both so busy we have to make dates to see each other,” she said. White admits that he still does not know “what it’s like to come home for lunch—or even dinner.”
But at the end of last week’s Labor Day parade, the family did not stay on for an afternoon at the Exhibition. White went off to help move furniture into the NDP campaign office in his riding. Even after four decades as a union leader, he is still fighting many of the same battles on the streets, just as he did early in his career—and it has not gotten any easier.
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