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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 ...

He is from a large family of small means – eight children raised on the wages of an assembly line worker at Chrysler.

Mr. Lewenza was forced to go to work at age 16 when he fathered a child. His future mother-in-law got him a job at a combined fire-extinguisher recharging shop and gas station in Windsor, where he worked for two years before he was hired at Chrysler.

His first job in the factory that now cranks out Chrysler’s minivans was hooking up accelerator cables on the Dodge Darts and Plymouth station wagons then rolling off the line.

After that job, it was into a pit on the chassis line to install radiator hoses and shock absorbers and tighten transmission bolts. “That was tough, shitty work,” he recalls. “You had to climb in and out between cars. It was a dirty operation. We shouldn’t kid anybody; back in those days there were some challenges on product quality.” Fluids leaked down on the heads of the workers in the pit.

Although he was reluctant to leave Windsor to take on the national president’s job, he expresses no regret, despite the difficulties of the past four years.

But there is one thing he misses. If he had a bad day, he would wander through the plant to reconnect with rank-and-file workers. “They kind of keep your confidence level up. At the national level, it’s a little different. You want to be close to the workplace, but you’re distanced.”

While the recession and the manufacturing crisis are making things difficult for labour leaders, they are devastating for the workers who find themselves out of a job. The climate of fear is thick among those who have so far escaped the restructurings and the job cuts.

Mr. Lewenza recounts a recent visit to Las Vegas, where he asked a Delta Airlines attendant whether employees received any part of the $25 fee to check a piece of luggage and was told that workers are lucky to have jobs.

“If it was me, I would have said we damn well deserve a share of that $25,” he says.

The crisis, he argues, gives employers added backbone to increase the pressure on workers to make concessions.

“I honestly believe our governments in the private sector and employers are using the debt crisis for their own convenience today.”

The CAW is fighting back in part by planning a merger with the Communications Energy and Paperworkers union of Canada, which will create a union of about 350,000 members compared with the CAW’s current 195,000. The merger will strengthen workers’ political clout and the combined union will be stronger in local communities as well, he maintains.

All of this makes for a full plate; much larger than the one holding Mr. Lewenza’s toast.

What does he do when he’s not putting in 12-hour days?

“I don’t do anything for fun,” he responds, pointing out that he doesn’t drink or smoke, but is addicted to chocolate and is trying to cut down on the two or three chocolate bars he downs daily.

It turns out he does find a way to relax that doesn’t involve butting heads with corporations.

He plays the ponies at racetracks around Toronto or in his hometown of Windsor.

“I’m not a very successful gambler, so I don’t know how it relieves stress,” he says of his fortnightly forays, where he lays down $200 to $300 and there are no horses telling him that workers’ pensions are too expensive.

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CURRICULUM VITAE

Family

* Two sons: Ken Jr., 41, and Troy, 35.

* Partner: Laurie Britton, who works in the purchasing department of the Greater Essex Country District School Board.

Education

* Left W.D. Lowe High School in Windsor, Ont., at age 16.

* Started work at Chrysler Canada Inc. two years later, in 1972.

Career

* Became active in the Canadian arm of the UAW; elected steward from Chrysler’s chassis department in 1978.

* In 1994, elected president of Canadian Auto Workers local 444 in Windsor, Ont.

* Won presidency of the national union in September, 2008.

* His first car was a 1960 Pontiac he bought from a friend for $100 and painted himself.

* Now he drives a 2011 Chrysler Jeep Grand Cherokee.

In his words

“A victory to me is: did we stop the boss from unilaterally doing something that they would have done if we weren’t there and every day we’re doing that.”

“I have yet to walk into a room where the employer said ‘We want to reward the employees.’ Even during good times I have not heard it yet. I’m anxiously waiting for it.”

“I wish everybody had a chance to work on the assembly line because you work your ass off.”

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