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Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Ken Lewenza: The reluctant president Add to ...

To understand the meaning of the term baptism by fire, consider the heat that Ken Lewenza has endured since he became president of the Canadian Auto Workers union in 2008.

During his first week on the job, Deere & Co. announced the closing of a factory in Welland, Ont., wiping out 800 jobs.

A few days later, when Mr. Lewenza was settling into his new office at CAW headquarters in Toronto, Simmons Canada said it would shut a mattress-making plant in Brampton, Ont. That vaporized 145 jobs.

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These were the grim days of September, 2008, when just as he took over the helm of the CAW from Buzz Hargrove, Lehman Brothers collapsed and threatened to yank the global economy into the abyss with it.

Plant closings, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ pensions and benefits have dominated Mr. Lewenza’s world since then, despite massive government intervention around the globe that helped stave off another Great Depression.

The economy is recovering in fits and starts.

But for Canada’s largest private-sector union and its president, the recession of 2008-2009 set off the equivalent of a monstrous forest fire that keeps breaking out: a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream factory closing unveiled last week; a General Motors of Canada Ltd. assembly plant shutdown announced in June; and the bitter battle with Caterpillar Inc. that led to a plant closing in London, Ont., in February.

“The restructuring and the challenges just haven’t stopped,” Mr. Lewenza says, over breakfast of white toast, and several cups of coffee, at the Bristol Place hotel on Toronto’s airport strip. “It has been relentless.”

That is perhaps why he acknowledges he had zero interest in becoming president of the union when Mr. Hargrove sought a successor during that ugly summer of 2008.

“I told Buzz to find somebody else,” he says. After discussions over several weeks, the pressure came to a head in a final meeting at this very hotel.

“Buzz said ‘I’m not asking you now, you gotta do it … the union needs you,’ ” Mr. Lewenza recalls. “So I said ‘Hey, if I’ve gotta’ do it, I’ve gotta’ do it.’ ”

That reluctance – or at least initial reluctance – has been the pattern for Mr. Lewenza’s rise to the top of the CAW.

The decision to accept Mr. Hargrove’s edict landed him squarely on the firing line during the crisis that sent two of the Detroit Three car companies into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and a bailout of tens of billions of dollars from the federal, Ontario and U.S. governments.

The CAW gave up vacation time, cost of living adjustments and other benefits to help secure the bailouts.

The contracts that contained those concessions expire in September. Mr. Lewenza and his members want the concessions reversed and are seeking promises of new investment from Chrysler Canada Inc., Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. and GM Canada.

He has no illusions that the talks will be a walk in the park in the face of a Canadian dollar at par with the U.S. currency – which has eviscerated Canada’s once-healthy competitive advantage.

The companies say Canada is now the most expensive place in the world to make vehicles and want the Canadian union to agree to surrender annual percentage wage increases, one of the pillars on which it was constructed, and replace them with profit-sharing bonuses.

Bargaining is “going to be incredibly difficult,” acknowledges Mr. Lewenza, who has shown no fear of doing battle with employers. “I say to the companies today and I say it with passion: ‘You can’t just walk in here in 2012 and say the sacrifices of auto workers don’t mean anything.’ ”

The 58-year-old is well-versed in the tension of negotiations. He became national president after 14 years as head of CAW local 444 in Windsor, Ont., where he led the union’s Chrysler bargaining team in five sets of national negotiations.

As he tells it, his climb up the union ladder since he first walked into a Chrysler assembly plant in Windsor in 1972 has come about almost entirely by accident or because people urged him to seek positions he didn’t really want.

Those circumstances included the deaths of three presidents of local 444 while Mr. Lewenza was in the lower ranks of the executive.

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