With great sadness, I learned of the death of Bob White. In 1978, he became the leader of the Canadian section of the UAW about a year and half after I started working on the line at GM. Little did I know what an amazing leader and pioneer in working class history he would turn out to be.
White, a youthful immigrant from Northern Ireland, came from the shop floor to become the plant chairperson, working his way through the ranks to becoming an organizer, assistant to then leader Dennis McDermott and head of the Canadian section when McDermott retired.
Like the few historical figures who responded to difficult and unprecedented challenges by taking courageous decisions that ended up changing history, White stepped up to the plate in 1984 to transform the way that unions educate, mobilize and organize workers, and provided a set of principled approaches to challenging neoliberalism.
White argued for the independence of worker interests from those of their employers and the necessity of unions to respect this. During the collective bargaining crisis of 1984, when the International UAW and General Motors both demanded that the union change its traditional commitment to improving the lives of its members and agree to concessions in order to help the employer’s competitive position, White responded with the words, “You don’t need a union to walk backwards”.
He challenged the power of American international unionism (even though it was the context in which he grew up as a unionist), recognizing that Canadian workers need to have the power to make their own decisions about the future of bargaining and politics – and put into practice the principle that international solidarity can only happen between equals.
White built opposition to the era of concessions into the basic structures of the new Canadian Auto Workers Union, formed in 1985. He and his leadership team recognized the seriousness of the challenge that concessions raised, and saw them as the thin edge of the wedge of the potential destruction of trade unionism. The new union was committed to rejecting them. It also started new forms of union and political education and a commitment to support those who struggled against concessions. White was also one of the few union leaders who actually saw the problematic nature of team concept, “partnership” and lean production and worked to facilitate a collective response by the union.
White recognized that competition and competitiveness amongst employers – a basic component of capitalism – constituted constraints on workers, to be understood and challenged, but not to be embraced by workers.
He helped to introduce (albeit only temporarily) a different kind of politics for the union and elements of the larger union movement, in not subordinating their political actions and orientation to the NDP (which he continued to support). He embraced the anti-free trade campaign in the 1980’s as a union campaign that involved leaders and rank and file in doing education with their co-workers and community members (not in a simplistic, populist way). He also critiqued Broadbent’s 1988 electoral campaign which abandoned the trade union movement and ceded the opposition to US-Canada Free Trade to the Liberals. These were key moments in the union’s development and also helped to transform the nature of working class political options, for an important period. It opened the door to later steps forward, such as the unions’ building the Ontario Days of Action and collective participation in the anti-globalization movement.
He inspired thousands of Canadian workers to embrace unionism, and to oppose concessions, and subordination of union ideals on the alter of competitiveness. He taught many of us that unions can be more than simply go-betweens with large corporations and that union leaders can grow and change, like working class leaders of all strata.
Bob played an historic role in building working class understanding of key principles: the need for workers in every country to control their own class institutions; the need to maintain a clear understanding of the conflict of interests between workers and employers (all the while maintaining working relationships); the refusal to see competitiveness as a goal for workers; the need to maintain a capacity to collectively struggle and resist, and the refusal to embrace concessions as a strategy to protect workers; and the need to develop an independent political capacity, based on mass education, mobilization and activism.
Ultimately, Bob, with his retirement from CAW, was never able to lead the union into the era of mature neoliberalism and went on to an uneventful (although principled) career in the CLC and shortly after (when he worked to oppose Canadian participation in the US Iraq invasion). Periodically, he carried out different projects for the union, and his presence in some of my education classes at the union’s educational centre in Port Elgin, was always constructive, collegial and supportive.
When the CAW began to change directions, he played no role in challenging it. For many of us, this was disappointing. His later battle with dementia was heartbreaking for all of us who knew and were touched by him.
The role he played in building the union and inspiring a generation of union activists, continues to bear fruit in many areas of the trade union movement and working class politics.
Take the time to view the National Film Board documentary on the 1984 GM-UAW negotiations, called Final Offer. Although over 30 years old, it still holds up as an eloquent testament to the role of Bob White. The union’s PR film No Looking Back, also highlights White’s role and positions and how they helped to shape the CAW and the larger union movement in Canada.