Canada's Leading Unionist Stands Firm

In era of restructuring, Bob White is wary of easy union-management partnerships

MASS layoffs. Plant closings. Factories moving south of the border. Wage concessions. Work and seniority rules trashed.

The same 1980s images that left American trade unionists with harsh memories of an "anti-union" decade are becoming all too familiar to Canadian union members in the 1990s.

Unlike organized labor in the United States, Canada's union movement passed through the 1980s unbowed and undiminished. Wages grew. Concessions were rare. And while US union membership fell, Canadian union membership rose (see related story, right).

Now, however, three years of recession combined with widespread industrial restructuring under the 1989 US-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) have brought job losses and concessions home to Canadian labor. Many unionists worry the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will only bring more of the same.

Those are bitter facts to Bob White, who last June resigned as head of the Canadian Auto Workers to lead the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the country's premier labor organization.

As well known as many national politicians, White has become something of a superstar for organized labor in Canada at a critical period in its history. Leading a federation of 85 national and international unions with 2.2 million members, White's charge is to help steer Canada's labor movement safely into the 21st century. Opposing trade deals

That, he says, is why he is crusading in a federal election year to scrap not just NAFTA and the FTA but also the Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney that put them in place.

"The FTA has been an absolute disaster from the Canadian point of view," White says in an interview. "We're going to be talking about the economy.... Our perception of the FTA and NAFTA is that its very much about corporate power, and not just about trade."

Born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, White immigrated to Canada at age 13 and led his first labor strike at age 21. He is best known for leading Canadian workers to split with the international United Auto Workers union in March 1985 and to form the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). His skill in negotiating 1980s wage gains - along with pictures of him toe-to-toe with UAW chiefs and negotiators for Detroit's Big Three automakers - won him national prominence.

Now he is using the bully pulpit of the CLC to debate opponents and to rail against the "corporate agenda" he sees embedded in the two free-trade pacts. But what really irks the business community is his hard line on business-labor partnership and the "flexible" work force so much in vogue right now. Wary standpoint

White rejects the notion that corporations are the "natural partners" of labor, despite the trend toward teamwork on the factory floor. Instead, he advocates alliances between labor and social-action groups working on behalf of women, the environment, natives, and other minorities. Good communication with management is key, he says. But management-inspired solutions such as "quality circles" should not be adopted without scrutiny and union input. This position has not endeared him to business.

"His leadership reflects a style that is confrontational at times," says Thomas d'Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues, a group representing the leaders of Canada's largest companies. "He sees virtue in the adversary system. He's saying ... [management and labor] will talk, but we're not partners. I've told him I think it's totally out of step with mainstream labor movements around the world."

Yet analysts say White's hard line is part of a long-term political strategy to bolster Canadian unionism - quite apart from any success or failure in collective bargaining.

"Canadian labor has taken a different strategy from US labor, in that they haven't confined themselves to collective bargaining," says Anil Verma, associate professor of industrial relations at the University of Toronto. "They've combined [bargaining] with an aggressive political strategy, the main instrument of which is their activity within the New Democratic Party."

Labor support for the social democrat NDP - whose constituents include many social-action groups - bore fruit in the early 1990s with the election of three NDP governments in Ontario, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan.

Both Ontario and British Columbia recently passed labor legislation that lowers the hurdle on union organizing. The move was labeled political payback by business interests, but White calls the measures merely incremental.

Though he often steps to the podium to debate Mr. d'Aquino and others, White spends much of his time in low-profile activities: mending fences between unions and building bridges with social action groups.

"The Canadian labor movement has historically seen itself as an agent of social and economic change," says Leo Gerard, Canadian director for the United Steelworkers of America. "I think Bob's strength is creating coalitions with social action groups."

Yet White's biggest challenge is to keep Canadian unions speaking with one voice. Despite labor's undeniable political success, the inroads on collective bargaining have undercut unity, many observers say.

"There are too many unions in Canada, and too many small unions that can't offer enough services to members," says Fred Pomeroy, executive vice president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, the product of a merger in December. "The economy is going through dramatic changes, and we in the labor movement have to restructure." Some unions rethink path

Under intense pressure, some unions are reassessing their positions opposing change proposed by management. Canadian members of the United Steelworkers of America union and the former Communications Workers of Canada, in contrast to the CAW under White, favored a more open dialogue with management.

White's bottom line remains clear, critics and friends alike say, even when it runs counter to the prevailing trends.

"All of this talk about ... work reorganization has to take into consideration the real quality of work life of the workers," White says. "We recognize change. But part of that is understanding how change affects the worker, not just how it makes a company more competitive."

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