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.
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.
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.
* 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.
* Left W.D. Lowe High School in Windsor, Ont., at age 16.
* Started work at Chrysler Canada Inc. two years later, in 1972.
* 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.”