BORN: Upper Lands, Northern Ireland • 28 April 1935
In his autobiography, Bob White tells one of his father’s stories of the day four-year-old Bob went to school for the first time with his eight-year-old brother. “Don’t worry about Bill,” the story has Bob saying. “If anyone tries anything, I’ll take care of him.” Apocryphal no doubt, a story lovingly burnished by memory but probably true in its essentials.
Tough, smart, combative, Bob White was always ready to take on anyone and everything.Born into relative poverty to a Northern Irish Protestant family, White came to Canada with his parents in 1949. Settling into squalid rural accommo¬ dation near Woodstock, Ontario, the Whites worked hard for little money and, after the father was injured and could no longer handle hard labour in the fields, they lived in town.
White quickly left school and at fifteen began to work on the production line in a local woodworking factory. Soon he was a union militant, and his rise through labour’s ranks was meteoric. By 1959 he was president of a United Auto Workers local, and the next year he went to full-time orga¬ nizing work, then to coordinator of organization, to assistant to the UAW director for Canada, and, in 1978, to director for Canada.
In the hidebound union movement, already entering a period of slow decay, White was a breath of militancy and vigour.There was more to come. A typical “international”union, the UAW was run out of Detroit and responded to the needs of its American workers first. Canadians came a long way second, and White, already heavily involved with the New Democratic Party and caught up in the 1970s nationalist currents in Canada, was unhappy.
As Canadian director, he began to press for both a “no concessions” policy to manage¬ ment and for more autonomy for his 120,000 workers. Stonewalled, he became increasingly restive: he and his locals were for striking, while the international leadership favoured accommodation. “They don’t understand,” he said to one aide. “It still hasn’t penetrated that we’re not another state in the United States, we’re a different country.”
In 1984, frustrated beyond endurance, he broke completely with the UAW and the next year became the first president of the independent Canadian Auto Workers. This was a revolu¬ tionary act for the union movement and, bolstered by victories in his new union’s first negotiations with Chrysler, White quickly began to expand the CAW’s reach into other sectors, including East Coast fisheries.
The Canadian Labour Congress members were not happy, but such was White’s charismatic appeal that he became CLC president in 1992.He was the right man for the job. Unlike almost every other labour leader, the young-looking White had a firm grasp of public relations.
In 1986, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation televised “Final Offer,” a flattering TV program based on White’s bargaining techniques, viewers were fascinated and titillated with the array of curses that showed the sheer animal drive of its protagonist.
The next year he published a successful autobiography. Inevitably, White was the leader in every labour protest against the Mulroney government, and the centre of the failed Pro-Canada Network campaign against the Free Trade Agreement from 1985 to 1988.
Although White was a vice-president of the New Democratic Party and the initiator of “job canvassing,” a system that encouraged workers to support NDP candidates, he was no tame supporter. He criticized the party’s “disinte¬ gration” in opposing the FTA, a time that ought to “have been the New Democratic Party’s finest hour.”
After Bob Rae’s NDP took power in Ontario, a furious White led the labour movement’s opposition to the government’s “social contract.” White’s union had been a key supporter in winning the cerebral Rae the provincial party leadership and power, but now his efforts, as much as anyone’s, drove the government from office.
A social-democratic party was supposed to back the workers; if it didn’t, if it acted first in the interests of bondholders, it merited nothing but contempt.White tells a story of his Ulster youth: “One day I saw a rainbow so vivid that I thought it surely must have a pot of gold at its end.”
The rainbow disappeared behind a hill, so White climbed up, only to discover that it appeared to end beyond the next rise. “It was a while before I gave up thinking I’d find that pot of gold.” The workers’ pot of gold may always lie over the next hill, in Canada as in Northern Ireland, but if any labour leader has a chance of reaching it, Bob White will be the one.