|The trouble with ... Buzz
|September 19, 2005
Buzz Hargrove, the bombastic face of organized labour in Canada, is in the unaccustomed role of playing defence. The country's pre-
eminent labour leader is spending this month dealing with layoffs, weakened bargaining power and shrinking labour ranks. Welcome to
the Big Three auto talks.
It's usually a time when Buzz shines. But now, amid the triannual labour negotiations with the Big Three, observers are openly asking of
the 61-year old CAW president: Has Buzz lost his touch?
Mr. Hargrove has been warning all summer that times have changed for the 40,000-plus autoworkers who make up the heart of the
CAW's 265,000 membership. His auto members are the best-paid unionized workers in the country; even in retirement CAW members
earn more than the average industrial wage.
Certainly the signs are there that Buzz is not the battler he once was. He has appeared tentative in the muscle-flexing auto talks. He
selected Ford as his union's negotiating target and then said the CAW would switch to Chrysler should the going get tough with Ford.
Was it the shrewd master bargainer at work? Was it a humbled Buzz Hargrove bargaining from a position of weakness? Were the CAW
and its leader suddenly weak and indecisive?
These were not questions being asked just by CAW outsiders.
"So did our people," admitted Mr. Hargrove of the sentiment in an interview this week from his temporary headquarters in a Toronto hotel,
dressed in the unofficial CAW uniform of sports shirt and, for much of his coterie, too-tight jeans.
The CAW looked to have little power over Ford, other than the ability to fire a bullet into the heart of the automaker. Ford's assembly
plants in Oakville and Windsor are operating far below capacity, pumping out cars and vans few seem to want.
"If we have to have a strike, or go to a strike deadline that ain't going to work. They saw the two [Ford] plants with a lot of downtime. We
decided to throw Chrysler in the mix because we knew our members at Ford as well as Chrysler and GM were reading it exactly" the
In fact, during his 13-year reign at the top of the CAW, Mr. Hargrove has never taken his people out on strike and shut down an
automaker, a point he mentions often with pride.
He also said he is not the rabid unionist many think, perhaps remembering the Hargrove-led Days of Protest against Ontario's Mike
Harris government, which shut down several of the province's cities.
"[Federal Industry Minister] David Emerson, when I met him about the third time said, 'Christ, I heard you were a goddamn radical. You
have changed, you are a pussycat now,'" the labour leader recalled.
"I don't think I've changed at all," he said. "If you ask the people around me I have always been someone who has worked hard to try to
find a solution. No one can ever point to me and say I took on a strike. I took on the issues when Mike Harris got elected and [he] started
attacking the labour movement. But that was a response on an attack on us."
Longtime Canadian industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers, who initially called the CAW's most recent negotiating tactic with Ford and
Chrysler "brilliant," says negotiating tactics can't disguise the erosion of the union under Buzz Hargrove's leadership.
"If he has made a mistake it was getting gold-plated agreements over the last four, possibly five settlements," said Mr. DesRosiers.
"That is what has positioned him in such a negative light today and that is what has cost him so many jobs to date. He has lost 15,000
members as a result since the CAW first broke out on its own" from the Detroit-based United Auto Workers. "He has made up that two or
three times over by raiding other unions in non-automotive [sectors] but his automotive workforce is a shell of itself," said Mr. DesRosiers.
This past week, the CAW agreed to a further 1,100 job losses at Ford with Chrysler and General Motors still waiting in the wings and
looking to reduce their union work forces. The CAW estimates Chrysler is looking to cut about 2,500 CAW members as part of the latest
Although the Big Three executives might have the upper hand in the current game of chicken with the CAW and its leader, they speak of
Mr. Hargrove with respect due a worthy adversary.
"If you want to compare the CAW to the UAW, the UAW has no public profile," said one automotive executive currently involved in the CAW
"Outside the car business, nobody knows what the UAW is. Everybody in Canada knows who Buzz is and who the CAW is. He is larger
For better or worse, the CAW finds itself hitched to the trio of Detroit-based automakers which has steadily lost auto sales and market
share to foreign manufacturers, particularly the Japanese automakers.
The CAW has tried unsuccessfully to stem the bleeding of high-wage autoworkers by organizing the Canadian workforces of Japan's
Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., which operate Ontario assembly plants in Cambridge and Alliston respectively.
"We're going to organize Toyota and Honda," said Mr. Hargrove. "If we had the right laws today, we'd have them organized if the Harris
government hadn't undermined the organizing rights of working people. We're just taking our time to make sure that we, um, as they say
in Quebec, we have the 'winning conditions' before we apply’ for union certification.
Mr. Hargrove has spent more time talking about the woes of the Canadian auto industry than the five branch plant presidents who run the
Big Three, Toyota and Honda.
He has used the spotlight of the Big Three bargaining to hammer away at the perceived inequity of international trade, which the CAW
claims allows Asian automakers to flood North America with imports while keeping their home markets shut.
Though more auto job losses are sure to come as a result of new contracts from Chrysler and General Motors, Mr. Hargrove is secure in
the top perch until 2009, when he will reach the union's mandatory retirement age of 65. That's a good deal longer on the job than the
average autoworker, who typically retires in his early 50s under the union's "30 and out" labour deals with the Big Three.
Right now, there is no clear successor to Mr. Hargrove, who insists the union will be in good shape whenever he chooses to leave.
"There's a half a dozen people at least who can replace me and the union won't miss a click. I never worry about that."
It's doubtful that Mr. Hargrove will follow the lead of his mentor and former CAW chief Bob White, who ended up as head of the Canadian
"My history means that I have got a lot more enemies than I have friends," he said ruefully. "I might go into a university. I think I can add
something by using that practical experience. Politics is something I haven't ruled out. I have had a few offers over the years but nothing I
thought would suit me or that I felt good about."
There's hardly anything about his life that's a secret. In his tell-all 1998 autobiography, he dealt honestly with his hard-drinking -- "I could
drink a huge amount and not get belligerent or stupid" -- and his failed marriage.
"My book exposed a lot of my history," he said. "I think I was very frank in that. My daughters were a little upset when I printed it and I said,
'Well which part isn't true?' You can't be scared of telling the truth and telling what you went through."
A recent Toronto Star article, published fittingly on the Labour Day long weekend, revealed Buzz Hargrove is also in love a second time
with Denise Small, a former fashion model and airline attendant 15 years his junior.
While he has moved in with Ms. Small and her two grown children, Mr. Hargrove said he is not negotiating a long-term contract.
She says to me, more than I say to her, 'Why would I screw that up by getting married?'"
Source: Paul Brent, Financial Post