Canada's auto industry is abuzz these days.
When the high Canadian dollar is not causing concern, plant closures, climate-change issues and new vehicle models enable this critical manufacturing sector to grab attention.
It's Buzz Hargrove's job to make sure that workers' interests aren't forgotten. Hargrove is serving his final full year at the helm of the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW), the largest private-sector union in Canada. And it will be a pivotal year for both the CAW and Hargrove as members seek a new deal with the Big Three automakers - General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.
The Big Three talks will challenge Hargrove's claim that the CAW prefers respectful negotiations over strikes. "There's not many unions anywhere near our size that don't have 10 or 12 disputes going at any one time," he says. "With us, if it's one or two, that's a lot."
|Daniel Alexander, Business Edge|
|CAW president Buzz Hargrove enjoys a laugh with union members of Mississauga Seating Systems.|
Hargrove has experienced, if not caused, many of these disagreements. Since the mid-1960s, he has helped the CAW form its own organization - after breaking away from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers union - and expanded the organization into a variety of other sectors ranging from aerospace to fisheries.
Over the years, he has squabbled with the Canadian Federation of Labour, severed the CAW's long-standing formal ties with the federal New Democratic Party, pranced privately and publicly with prime ministers and chafed chief executives and CAW members alike through actions that included a no-strike guarantee in a contract with Frank and Belinda Stronach's Magna autoparts manufacturing firm.
Say what you will about him, Hargrove knows how to generate buzz ...
1. How did you get the name Buzz?
"My name is Basil. When I was in school, everyone used to call me Baz. I went into several workplaces and I was always Baz. In Chrysler - I went in there in '64 about the same time Buzz Aldrin went to the moon - when I said Baz, they just started calling me Ol' Buzz. I just took up Buzz and it stuck with me in the plant. I ran for election. I figured if I ran on Baz or Basil, nobody would know me. So I ran on Buzz and I've been Buzz ever since."
2. What were some of the important lessons that you learned while growing up in New Brunswick?
"Hard work, honesty and respect for other people, regardless of religion, race, colour or sex."
3. Who were your mentors?
"My mom was my closest mentor. There was a man by the name of Bill Clark whom I lived with, off and on, while I was going through my (early teen years). Also, my Uncle Alvin, who lived with him. We used to call them the Odd Couple. Alvin was divorced and Bill's wife had died. Bill had had 18 children. A number of them were still home in a big place in Hartland, N.B. I stayed there with them. He worked for the local undertaker, but he had been a farmer all of his life. He was very warm (and) intelligent. I've always considered myself a socialist, but he was probably the only true socialist I ever knew. He always voted Conservative, but his practices were socialist. He would take anybody in off the street. I didn't get along well with my dad at all (because of a divorce situation) so he was kind of like a father to me."
4. What were some of your early passions?
"I didn't play any sports or anything. I loved reading - I do still today - and travelling the country. I worked in almost every province in the country before I settled in the auto industry in Windsor in 1964. I was always a good people person. One of my greatest strengths in my success as a union leader has been my ability to read people in the bargaining committees and the management we're dealing with."
5. What were some of your memorable experiences during your travels?
"I got fired from a job up in northern British Columbia.
We were working for a pipeline company called Campion out of Edmonton. I wrote about this in my book, Labour of Love. I was ordered by the superintendent to go into the cold, rushing water in the dead of winter. I refused, and I was fired. I'll also always remember when (then-U.S. president) John F. Kennedy was shot. I was working on the South Saskatchewan River Dam in Outlook, Sask. There were a lot of new immigrants from Europe there, including Eastern Europeans. I'll always remember the mood amongst all of those people, who thought, 'The Russians have killed him. This is the beginning of the Third World War.' I (also) worked for Alberta Government Telephones (which eventually merged into Telus). That was the first time I got downsized. Two companies, one out of Edmonton, one out of Calgary. One bought the other, then they laid off the 50 or 60 most junior people to save money. I think I was about 19 years of age at that time."
6. How did you get steered toward a career related to the auto industry?
"I really didn't. I was working on the South Saskatchewan River Dam and I had every intention of going back. I still had an apartment in Calgary and I was going back there once the dam project was finished, which was only in two or three more years. I worked on a survey crew and the project shut down for the winter. We had another six or eight weeks of working to prepare the site for the spring when the big machines come back. When I finished that, I came back to Calgary. Then I took my time driving across Canada to visit my mom in New Brunswick and my half-brother, Carl, living in Windsor. Carl talked me into putting in some resumés to different companies. I was not looking for a job, but just to satisfy him ... I put in the applications and I went on to New Brunswick. When I got down there, I got a call. Chrysler had called me to go in for a medical and go to work. So that's how I ended up on that job. Even then, I was only going to stay a couple of months until the dam project re-opened. But once I was there, I liked the work. The money was better than what I had been making out west. I just decided to stay and got hired on April 28, 1964."
7. How did you get steered toward union leadership?
"I was working steady nights - six days a week, which meant Monday through Saturday night. I had no social life at all. Some of the older guys said, 'Well, why don't you talk to the union? See if they can get you on days.' So I did. Through that conversation, I got to know the union. I had to talk to 'em every day for a few days before the (shift change) was done. There was a chairperson who became my friend and mentor in my union life. Ken Gerard was a mountain of a man. He weighed about 300 pounds, but he was a gentle giant. He got to telling me about the union and he invited me to membership meetings. I started going and I started hanging out with him. I'd go out for dinner with him and his wife and talk about the union (and) talk about politics of the union. Then the rumours started in late '64 that the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact was going to be signed between (then-prime minister) Lester Pearson and (former U.S. president) Lyndon Johnson. This was going to create thousands of new jobs in the auto industry in Canada. Sure enough, I hung in at Chrysler. They signed the pact and (Chrysler) announced the second shift in the Windsor car-assembly plant. They hired 2,000 brand-new people off the street. From across the country they came - from farms, from factories and from university and from school. They all were new to the plant, to the company and to the union. So I was seen as one of the more senior guys, having almost one year of seniority, and the union asked me to run for shop steward on the second shift. I did. That was in March of 1965 and I've held a union position at one level or another ever since."
8. Did you face adversity early in your union life?
"The workplace in those days was really like a war zone. The union and the management fought continually on every issue. Management had no respect for the union or workers. They were driving people to get more work out of them and to get the (assembly) line to speed up. Health and safety were big issues on the shop floor. When I started, we were building 14 different vehicles in one factory that all required different parts and different packaging. So you can imagine what the plant looked like in terms of cardboard and steel racks and wooden racks. It really was a very unsafe situation. So I was part of a mini-revolution that changed all of that, that forced the company to start doing things differently - to start respecting the union."
9. You say you're a pacifist, but you don't shy away from confrontation. What's your view on dealing with confrontation or conflict?
"Defending people or defending my beliefs, I don't shy away from that. I'm 63 years of age. I take great pride in saying that I've never harmed a hair on any human being's head in all those years. Every (union and) management relationship we've had has always been confrontational. We're doing some things to try to change that. The recent Magna (auto parts) agreement is one example of that, where they made a pledge that they would recognize the union without interference with the workers. We pledged not to strike and they pledged not to lock out. I've always said those are avenues that should be explored.
"Companies shouldn't be afraid of unions - and unions shouldn't be declaring war on companies.
But the nature of the beast - the history of labour relations - is that once workers decide they want a union, the company does everything possible to try to keep the union out."
10. What's your response to those who say Canada is losing its manufacturing industries because labour costs are too high?
"That's absolutely not true. There's not been one workplace that's closed that's blamed labour costs - and I deal with a lot of companies. There are a lot more non-union manufacturing operations that are going under than there are union. That's a flippant response by people who don't have any intellect to deal with the real problems that manufacturing is facing. The problem is the dollar and the incredible escalation of the dollar against the U.S., where most of our products are shipped, over a short period of time."
11. What else is wrong with Canada's manufacturing industry?
"The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allows companies to take advantage of lower wages in the southern United States or Mexico and take advantage of very lax or unenforced environmental laws in countries like Mexico. That's a major problem, and also the unfair trade that we have with the rest of the world. We're the Boy Scouts of trade - bear markets on almost every product. Wide open. Come on in. Take our jobs. Every other major nation in the world has (key) industries. They find a way to defend those industries and support their entrepreneurs and to support the workers and their families. I can't even get a meeting with the prime minister. After two years in office, (Stephen Harper) still refuses to meet with our union. I don't think he should meet with Buzz Hargrove because I'm Buzz Hargrove, but the leader of the auto workers' union is representing not just the auto industry but the airline industry, railway, transportation, fisheries, mining, hospitality (and) gaming. I think it's an absolute disgrace that this prime minister has refused to meet with the top leadership in our union."
12. How many prime ministers have you met with?
"We had a large group of people that met with Lester Pearson back in the mid-60s, and (I've met with) every prime minister following that, from Pierre Elliott Trudeau to Brian Mulroney to Joe Clark, John Turner, Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. I had several meetings with Paul Martin, including once at his home on 24 Sussex Drive. (Harper) is so indifferent to what's happening to people out there. All he does is take comfort that the overall economy is strong because of our commodities."
13. Was Paul Martin the only prime minister who invited you to his home?
"Chretien did at one point, but the (planned meeting) fell apart because of his schedule. Intellectually, Paul Martin was probably the brightest prime minister we had. He really wanted to know and understand and talk through the issues. He wanted to know what, if anything, the government could do to assist, and wanted to be challenged about what could be done and what was possible. In that regard, he was quite a different prime minister than others."
14. Why don't you like the deal that workers signed with GM and Chrysler in the U.S.? (The United Auto Workers recently agreed to a controversial four-year deal that allowed for big wage concessions.)
"I don't think it's good for workers and their families and communities. I don't think it's good for the company - and I know it's not good for the union. If you put it in the Canadian perspective, if we were to do the same thing, young people would be coming into our workplaces at the rates of pay that their moms and dads got hired at over 20 years ago. I ask myself: How are young people working at $14.25 per hour going to buy a car? They're not. They're going to be building them and somebody else is going to be buying them. How are they going to buy a home? How are they going to raise a family? I just think (the U.S. deal) is absolutely wrong."
15. What are the other key issues in the contract coming up?
"I don't know, it's too early. We don't open (negotiations) until July ... But one of the issues, clearly, will be on not going down the road of cutting wages or creating a two-tier wage system and second-class workers in the plant."
16. What do you see as some of your accomplishments at the CAW's annual meeting this past December?
"Getting approval of the Magna agreement. The CAW council is what we refer to as the parliament of our union in Canada. It has about 875 elected representatives from all local areas across Canada and it is a political body. If there's anything controversial going on in the union, we put it on the floor there for debate and vote. If the council says it's wrong, don't do this, we don't do it. We had an overwhelming vote. After four hours of debate, 98 per cent of our delegates voted in favour of the Magna agreement.
That was very important to me as the leader."
17. How would you describe your negotiation style?
"I think most companies, if you asked them, would say that I'm straight up. The thing that they like about me is my integrity. They know that 99.9 per cent of the time if they shake hands with Buzz Hargrove, they've got a deal."
18. Are you planning to write a sequel to your autobiography now that you're near the end of your career?
"A number of publishers have asked me if I'm going to do something and would like to work with me. I think I probably will. I wrote Labour of Love in '98. A lot has happened since then."
19. What kind of legacy are you hoping to leave?
"I've always said that the challenge for me is to try to leave the union in better shape than I found it, and to ensure that we have a transition of union leaders without a major split in the union. The union was about 120,000 members when I was elected in 1992. It's 261,000 today. Our peak was 265,000 a couple of years ago. We've doubled the staff in our union from around 80 to 160. We've doubled our education programs. We've doubled our organizing budget and our organizing effort, and we've added additional people to our national executive board of the union. I've made some changes to the constitution, for example, to make it compulsory that the president and secretary-treasurer and all elected officers and appointed (personnel) must retire at age 65 to ensure us in the future that we're going to have younger people constantly taking over leadership positions. And, I've opened the union up. It's much more democratic in the sense that we're more public. Every meeting we have now is open to the media."
20. What will you do when you're not running the CAW anymore?
"A couple of universities have talked to me about coming in and doing some lecturing a couple days a week on labour-management relations. I've had some government people talk to me about whether or not I'd be willing to play a role in some type of advisory capacity.
And, I've had some of the social movements that have asked me to spend more time fundraising. I look forward to that."
At Work With CAW
l Brass: Buzz Hargrove, president; Jim O'Neil, secretary-treasurer; Luc Desnoyers, Quebec director.
l Profile: The CAW, one of Canada's largest private-sector unions, began in 1937 as the Canadian region of the U.S.-based United Autoworkers Union. In 1984, the CAW split from the UAW in a bid to negotiate its own contracts. The CAW has since merged with several smaller unions, including the Fishermen, Food, and Allied Workers and the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and General Workers. Today, the CAW's 261,000 members include workers in many sectors.
l Structure: The CAW is governed by an elected National Executive Board that oversees union councils and locals.
l Website: www.caw.ca l HQ: 205 Placer Court, Toronto, M2H 3H9 l Phone/Fax: (416) 497-4110/ (416) 495-6559
l Title: President, Canadian Auto Workers Union.
l Born/raised/age: Bath, N.B./Holmesville, N.B./63.
l Education: Dropped out of high school in Grade 10.
l Family: Married Denise Small on Dec. 22, 2007. Father of five children through his first marriage and other relationships. Six grandchildren.
l Career: After leaving school, Hargrove worked at different jobs around the country, including as a labourer on a pipeline in northern B.C. and a dam project in Saskatchewan. By chance, he landed a job at a Windsor, Ont., auto plant and decided to stay in Ontario. After first winning election as a CAW shop steward in 1965, he held various elected positions until he joined the union's staff in 1975. In 1992, he was acclaimed as president and has won elections every three years since.
l Moonlighting: Hargrove serves as a Canadian Labour Congress vice-president and sits on the board of Toronto-based Pathways to Education. He also volunteers with Eva's Phoenix, a Toronto-based organization that aims to reduce youth homelessness and poverty.
l Passions: Reading and travel.
(Monte Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)