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
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
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.
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. …