Bob White helped shape Cana­dian land­scape

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Tim Arm­strong, a lawyer and for­mer On­tario deputy min­is­ter of labour, is now chair of the Ra­di­a­tion Safety In­sti­tute of Canada. TIM ARM­STRONG

Bob White, who died last week­end, was a Cana­dian icon, not only a ded­i­cated and ef­fec­tive labour leader, but as his ca­reer un­folded, a key con­trib­u­tor to our over­all eco­nomic and so­cial land­scape.

I had the priv­i­lege of know­ing and work­ing with him in­ter­mit­tently for al­most 50 years. We first met in the early 1960s, when I was a re­cently grad­u­ated labour lawyer work­ing with David Lewis, and Bob had joined the UAW Cana­dian staff un­der the sub-re­gional direc­tor Den­nis McDermott.

As a lawyer in the Lewis firm, I first be­came aware of Bob’s tal­ents in a key dis­pute be­tween the Cana­dian UAW and the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Ma­chin­ists over the bar­gain­ing rights at de Hav­il­land Air­craft in Mal­ton. Af­ter Bob’s suc­cess­ful con­tri­bu­tion to the UAW win, I also learned of the ku­dos he re­ceived from his hero, Wal­ter Reuther, and the hand­writ­ten let­ter of com­men­da­tion he re­ceived from Reuther, which he trea­sured and re­tained for the rest of his life.

I’ve al­ways be­lieved that Bob’s broad con­cerns for a just so­ci­ety in all as­pects re­sulted at least in part from his deep ad­mi­ra­tion of Reuther’s unique in­ter­est in and con­tri­bu­tion to na­tional and global aff airs, and the pro­found ef­fect that Reuther’s riv­et­ing and per­sua­sive com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills had.

Af­ter work­ing with Bob on ar­bi­tra­tions and re­lated mat­ters for over 10 years, I be­came deputy min­is­ter of labour in On­tario and a year later Bob suc­ceeded Den­nis McDermott as the UAW’s Cana­dian re­gional direc­tor. That year I re­ceived premier Bill Davis’s author­ity to form the Labour/Man­age­ment/Gov­ern­ment Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee.

There was at that time a clear need for im­proved com­mu­ni­ca­tions among the par­tic­i­pants. For­tu­nately, key lead­ers joined the com­mit­tee, in­clud­ing the CEOs of CGE, Al­goma Steel, CIL, Gen­eral Steel­wares, Gen­eral Foods, as well as the heads of the United Steel­work­ers, the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers, OPSEU, the UAW and oth­ers.

No one played a more sig­nif­i­cant, pos­i­tive role than Bob White. The group’s orig­i­nal fo­cus was on the Min­istry of Labour’s ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with Euro­pean-based Qual­ity of Work­ing Life con­cepts — ways in which shop floor work and su­per­vi­sion could be re­struc­tured to give work­ers more sat­is­fy­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion and au­ton­omy, at the same time en­hanc­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity and com­pet­i­tive­ness.

Due in large part to Bob’s leadership, this man­date was soon ex­panded to deal with a much broader range of so­cial and eco­nomic is­sues.

The com­mit­tee, with the ac­knowl­edge­ment of the com­mit­tee mem­bers of the need for con­ces­sion­ary col­lab­o­ra­tion, suc­ceeded in supporting a num­ber of statu­tory re­forms, in­clud­ing to the Labour Re­la­tions Act, the Em­ploy­ment Stan­dards Act, the Hu­man Rights Code and the en­act­ment of On­tario’s first Oc­cu­pa­tional Health and Safety Act.

The re­sult? A marked im­prove­ment in the labour re­la­tions en­vi­ron­ment, with a sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing im­passes and time lost due to strikes.

Space does not per­mit a de­tailed recita­tion of Bob’s re­mark­able achieve­ment in cre­at­ing the CAW as an in­de­pen­dent Cana­dian en­tity, with the re­luc­tant ac­cep­tance of the UAW’s Amer­i­can leadership, nor his vol­un­tary res­ig­na­tion in 1992 to be­come the pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Labour Congress for seven years.

In that lat­ter role, as through­out his re­mark­able ca­reer, he did not hes­i­tate to ex­press his strongly held views, in­clud­ing the weak­nesses of many free trade agree­ments, the dan­gers of global warm­ing, and the in­equities in na­tional and global wealth dis­tri­bu­tion, to name a few.

It would be wrong to pre­tend that all of Bob White’s views were uni­ver­sally ac­cepted, here in Canada or glob­ally. But they were highly re­spected, even by those of dif­fer­ing po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion, as ev­i­denced by his re­ceiv­ing the Or­der of Canada in 1990.

As has been said by oth­ers, we have lost one of Canada’s most charis­matic, coura­geous and in­flu­en­tial lead­ers. Thank God I knew him.

Labour leader Bob White

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