I joined the union when I was boy working at a door factory, Hay & Company, in Woodstock, Ont. I was a woodworker earning 47¢ an hour.
My family emigrated from Northern Ireland in 1949. I never fit in at school. I had an accent and couldn’t play hockey. I went to work, first as a dishwasher, then a farm labourer, then the door factory. You take what life gives you.
At Hay & Co. an old-timer with the United Auto Workers Local 636 named Smitty talked me into becoming an organizer. “Kid, you should take this!” he said; “I’ll work with you.”
In that era many union organizers came right out of the plant and did not have much education. But they were engaged, and loved the work. And most were good at it.
The Auto Workers won the first company-paid pensions; the first prescription drug plan; the first major cost-of-living allowance provision; the first comprehensive health care program for workers’ families. These were initiatives that changed people’s lives.
It stirred a young man’s imagination. I joined the union in 1951. I was fifteen years old. By age 17 I was shop steward; by 19 I was president of the local. I enjoyed it – but never thought I would wind up where I did. I’ve been very lucky.
Unions are about consensus, and solving problems. You find ways to maintain dialogue. I’ve spent 62 years in organized labour and been cheered and booed, but never took it personally. Labour issues are not about personalities. The question we ask is, what is the problem? And how do we fix it?
Opponents call us “big union bosses.” This is bullshit, excuse my language. As president of the Canadian Auto Workers I earned $64,000 a year and drove an Oldsmobile Delta 88. Most corporate managers I dealt with made a lot more than I did.
Union leaders are not autocrats; they are elected by members and accountable to the people they serve. I’ve attended membership meetings and been booed, and always replied: “Listen, Brother, you have a right. I’m doing the best I can but if you don’t agree, give us your argument.”
At times I thought I’d like to have been an MP.
In 1985 Ed Broadbent, then-leader of the New Democratic Party, publicly named me as a possible successor, but I never had thoughts of leading an party. A lot of people in the NDP do good, hard work and make some difference, but it’s very difficult to make changes. I thought I could achieve more through collective bargaining.
Unions are important. When unions fail, workers suffer.
Our Canadian labour movement can never rest on what we’ve done in the past. Our survival depends not on what we did in the past, but what we are going to do tomorrow.
I’ve enjoyed it. I am 78 now and will keep going until they tell me to stop.
(Editor’s note: the author was founding president of the Canadian Auto Workers, former president of the Canadian Labour Congress, and a 1990 recipient of the Order of Canada as a “champion of the working class”. Mr. White’s commentary is republished here as it originally appeared in Blacklock’s on August 18, 2013. Mr. White died February 19 at 81)