Ottawa — Shirley Carr, the first woman to head a national trade union movement in the West, does not hesitate to speak her mind. When the president of the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) met Mikhail Gorbachev with a group of top Western labor leaders last October, she recalls telling him ``Peace is not a question that can be just left to generals.''
Last Thursday, when she and many of the same labor leaders met with President Reagan, Mrs. Carr told the President she approved of his disarmament efforts, but disapproved of aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
On the same visit, the labor leaders met with the newly-appointed head of the National Security Council, Lt. Gen. Colin Powell. When she voiced her objection to US cruise missile testing over northern Canada, General Powell described the sparsely populated area as ``special terrain.'' Mrs. Carr replied that it was ``no more special than Manhattan,'' and why didn't the military test its missile over there.
The daughter of a Nova Scotia coal miner, Mrs. Carr does not reserve her bluntness for foreign leaders. She is equally blunt in dealing with controversial Canadian issues.
She talks of a new labor law in British Columbia as ``vicious and backward ... taking us back to the 1920s.'' She charges the Canadian government with being ``hostile'' to labor and using trade union picket lines as ``training grounds'' for the police in dealing with terrorists. She says ``most employers'' have decided that now is ``a good time to union bash.''
Mrs. Carr was elected president of the CLC in May 1986. Asked whether being a woman had meant any special problems as a labor leader, she replied: ``Once they found out I meant business, they just treat me with respect.''
In Canada the labor movement hasn't shrunk as it has in the United States. The CLC has kept a membership of about 2.3 million, despite losses during the 1982-83 recession and a conservative government in Ottawa.
Mrs. Carr attributes the relative success of Canadian trade unions to several factors. These include recruiting of service and public sector employees, a refusal to negotiate ``give-backs'' and other concessions with employers, even if it meant long strikes, and the labor movement's political activity.
She notes that the CLC and its affiliates are much more active than US unions with educational activities for its members. The labor movement also has strong federations in Canada's 10 provinces and two territories, and active local labor councils.
Most Canadian unions are either affiliates of, or support, the New Democratic Party (NDP), a left-of-center opposition party. In the US, the AFL-CIO leadership tends to back Democratic candidates. But the Canadian labor movement's ties with the NDP are much more formal and important financially.
``It is our party,'' says Mrs. Carr. ``We support it. We helped to build it.''
Another help to the Canadian labor movement in many provinces is relatively favorable labor laws. For example, a trade union can usually organize a company by getting a majority of its employees to sign cards of support.
The CLC's major political battle is its opposition to the free trade agreement, which Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Mr. Reagan signed Jan. 2. It has spent more than $3 million (US: $4 million) to campaign against free trade. Though a new study by the Ministry of Finance claims US-Canadian free trade would create 120,000 jobs in its first five years, Mrs. Carr says it would cost 800,000 to 1 million jobs. She further maintains that free trade would result in more decisions being made abroad, a drop in Canada's social programs to the level of those in the US, a weakening of Canada's cultural industries, and forced exports of Canadian energy and water to the US.
Proponents of free trade say Mrs. Carr has little evidence for such claims. Simon Reisman, chief Canadian negotiator for the trade deal, once spoke of the free trade opposition as using the Nazi ``big lie'' technique. Mrs. Carr responded with a letter that ``wasn't very nice,'' she admits. ``If I sound angry, I am. The government is giving this country away.''