Canada's Leading Unionist Stands Firm in Era of Restructuring, Bob White Is Wary of Easy Union-Management Partnerships

By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 1993 | Go to article overview

Canada's Leading Unionist Stands Firm in Era of Restructuring, Bob White Is Wary of Easy Union-Management Partnerships


Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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