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Remembering Bob White: Canadian Auto Workers union founder who defied critics

Bob White of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin, left, at meeting of NDP leaders and CLC leaders at Airport Hilton in 1993.

TIBOR KOLLEY/The Globe and Mail

Bob White, whose sharp wit and perseverance catapulted him to the top ranks of the Canadian labour movement, was best known for breaking away from the United Auto Workers union and forming the autonomous Canadian Auto Workers. The audacious move garnered international interest. UAW Rebel: Bob White, A 'Superstar' For Canadian Labor, The New York Times wrote in a 1985 headline about the split.

"I think that was his proudest moment," said Al Seymour, a lifelong friend and fellow trade unionist. "There were a lot of naysayers … who were questioning whether we could survive without the American sector. But history has told us that, hey, we have done very well. Our union continues to thrive and grow. There's been no looking back, that's for sure."

Mr. White, appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1990 for his commitment to "a democratic labour movement and a strong, independent Canada," died peacefully on Feb. 19, in Kincardine, Ont., of unspecified causes, his family said. He was 81. He leaves his wife, Marilyne White; sons, Todd and Shawn White; daughter, Robyn White; sister, Rachel; and grandchildren, Jordan, Taylor and Landon.

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Diagnosed in 2008 with Alzheimer's disease, Mr. White spent his final 2 1/2 years in long-term care as the disease took its toll, tended to by a constant stream of family and friends. He leaves a powerful legacy as a gutsy labour leader who resisted pressure – not only from the auto makers, but from his own international union leadership – to give up some of his members' hard-won collective bargaining gains in the early 1980s.

"Workers don't need unions to lead them backwards," said Mr. White, who was then Canadian director of the UAW. He received death threats in 1982 when the Canadian membership staged a five-week strike against Chrysler Corp. to recoup $1.15 an hour they had been forced to give up two years earlier as the auto maker fought to stave off bankruptcy, recalled Buzz Hargrove, Mr. White's assistant at the time.

Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca eventually relented and gave the Canadians the $1.15 they said they were owed as the company returned to profitability – although, Mr. Iacocca pointedly added, he didn't feel they deserved it. The U.S. workers, who had not gone on strike, were also given more than they had originally been offered, and the union finally felt safe to call off the armed bodyguard, a former Ontario Provincial Police officer who had been hired to protect Mr. White. "That was a very difficult time for Bob and his family, we were worried sick about what could happen," said Mr. Hargrove, who eventually succeeded Mr. White as CAW president.

The rupture with the UAW came in 1985, after the Canadian bargaining committee refused to accept the same concessionary contract that U.S. workers had already agreed to with General Motors Corp. Mr. White knew the proposal would not fly with the local leadership, who had been elected to protect their members' interests in negotiations with GM Canada. They struck their own deal and the union started proceedings to usher the 120,000 Canadian auto workers out of the UAW – a showdown immortalized in the Oscar-nominated National Film Board documentary Final Offer. The CAW, since renamed Unifor, is now Canada's largest and most diverse private-sector union, with 320,000 members.

With the auto workers and later as president of the Canadian Labour Congress, Mr. White was a masterful negotiator, a consensus-builder and trailblazer in the labour movement when it came to the promotion of women and people from diverse cultural backgrounds, said Peggy Nash, who served as an assistant to Mr. White, Mr. Hargrove and his successor Ken Lewenza before being elected as a New Democratic Party member of Parliament.

Bargaining breakthroughs in the White era included stronger severance protections for employees displaced by plant shutdowns, paid educational leave, maternity leave top-ups and child-care subsidies.

Apart from all that, Robyn White said her father loved to laugh, loved to dance, loved to sing – and, with little or no prompting, would belt out a perfect impression of Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World.

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While honoured to be invested into the Order of Canada, Mr. White was amused to find himself appointed alongside his ideological opposite, business tycoon Conrad Black (whose appointment was later revoked). "Black and White," he cracked in one of his trademark one-liners.

On his way to receive an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Toronto in 1988, Mr. White first stopped off to walk the picket line with striking U of T bookstore workers.

Throughout his life, Bob White put his all into everything he got involved in, whether it was flooding a backyard ice rink at 3 a.m. for his sons, rehearsing the musical score of Annie with Robyn, fighting the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement or facing off against a corporation across the bargaining table, she said.

Ms. White, a labour lawyer with Toronto-based Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre Cornish LLP, said her father was always open to discussion with people on the other side of an issue. His attitude was they might not like some of his ideas, he might not like some of theirs, "but if you don't talk about these things, you are never going to find a way."

George Smith, a former management negotiator who now teaches courses at Queen's University, said in a note of condolence to the family that "Bob still features prominently in my collective bargaining courses. … Although we met on opposite sides of the table in difficult negotiations at Air Canada and CP Rail, disputes were never personal with Bob, and we always managed to find solutions to our mutual problems."

Harold Robert White was born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, in 1935 and immigrated to Canada at the age of 14, settling in Woodstock, Ont., with his parents, older brother, Bill and baby sister, Rachel. The dairy manager job that Robert White Sr. had been promised didn't materialize and, instead, he was offered work as a farm labourer for $100 a month, plus a house with no indoor toilet or appliances. Young Bob, who was cutting classes, was asked if he would also like to work, for $1 a day, and "I leaped at it," Mr. White recounted in his autobiography, Hard Bargains: My Life on the Line. "I worked literally from morning until night, ploughing, cleaning the barn, milking, driving tractors, and I loved it." This lasted until a truant officer came by and forced Bob to go back to school.

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Bob returned to school long enough to finish Grade 10 and dropped out to join his father and older brother, who were then working at the local woodworking plant Hay & Co.

The elder White warned his sons not to get involved with the union because, he said, "it was run by a bunch of commies." Mr. Seymour laughed at the recollection. "That's one time Bob disregarded what his father suggested."

Bob joined the UAW at age 16 and quickly became a shop steward. It was heady stuff for a teenager, "to see some improvement and to know that I had a hand in bringing it about." Mr. White wrote in his book. By age 22, he was leading his first strike and it became apparent that he still had great deal to learn.

Mr. White wrote that some gruff advice from a seasoned union official stuck with him for the rest of his life. "You've got a good strike going," the UAW's Tommy McLean told young Mr. White. "I just want you to know that any dumb sonovabitch can take them out. The test is: Can you put them back? I think it's time you started to find a solution."

Shortly after his 22nd birthday, in 1957, Mr. White wed a young woman named Carolynne Dickenson. Their son Todd was born in 1961, and Shawn came along in 1963. By then, Mr. White was on staff with the UAW. "Every winter after we moved to Burlington in 1964, I made a rink in our backyard and fitted it with lights so that they had a place to play with the neighbourhood kids. I found time to coach house-league hockey on teams on which the boys played, on one occasion fitting bargaining sessions around a playoff," he wrote. That marriage ultimately ended in divorce.

In 1978, not long after Mr. White took over as Canadian director of the UAW, he married Marilyne Kuhn, a flight attendant active in the Canadian Airline Flight Attendants' Association at the time. Robyn, born in 1981, became a labour-movement baby. "I grew up at rallies and marches and travelling all over the place," she said. "I grew up dancing on dance floors at union conventions, and I still love doing it. … My parents were often the last people to leave those parties because they were enjoying themselves so much."

Mr. White spent the final seven years of his career as head of the Canadian Labour Congress, promoting social justice and human rights, before retiring in 1999, at the age of 64, to make way for "the next generation," his daughter said.

After devoting 50 years of his life to the labour movement, Mr. White truly retired, his daughter said. He enjoyed sunsets on the shores of Lake Huron in the summer, winters in Florida with Marilyne, get-togethers with old friends, golfing, travelling and tearing up the dance floor at fundraisers for various social causes.

"Bob always maintained that he had been so lucky in life, and he never failed to appreciate his good fortune," she said. "As he wished, a celebration of life is being planned."

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