When Ken Lewenza went to work at a Chrysler plant in Windsor, Ontario, at age 18, he had no plans to rise to the top job in Canada’s most visible union. His five-year tenure as president of the Canadian Auto Workers has been a trial by fire—Lehman Brothers collapsed two weeks after he assumed office, triggering the Great Recession and a mortal threat to Chrysler and General Motors. He and the union survived, but now, after helping to forge a merger with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union to create Unifor, he is handing the reins over to his long-time assistant Jerry Dias.
Why are you leaving now?
I decided not to run for president of the new union because I thought it would be a minimum three-year job and as long as six years, and my age wouldn’t position me to start the job and finish it. I’m going to be 60 next July, and I didn’t think it would be in the best interest of the union. Jerry is 54, and he can have some longevity and stability for the union.
This has been your life for 41 years. How difficult an adjustment will it be?
Incredible. I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t wake up in the morning and go to work. I never really thought much about retirement because I was always preoccupied with the work.
What were the highlights of your five-year term?
We survived it. One of the biggest positive things was the work we did with the Detroit Big Three, as painful and as frustrating as it was. The result was 30,000 pensioners not going through a company bankruptcy, and not seeing their pensions reduced and their benefits eroded like other folks at Chrysler and GM.
What were the low points?
I still walk around—and roll around in bed—thinking about plant closures, like Electromotive in London, the Daimler bus plant in Mississauga and the fisheries in Newfoundland, where there was a significant impact on coastal communities.
I saw families shattered. To see people with 40 or 45 years of service lose their jobs—those are experiences that will never go away.
What’s your assessment of where the union movement is now and where it’s headed?
It’s very tough today. When I was 18 and started at Chrysler, I instantly moved to a middle-class job. Now, the pressures on the union are significant in terms of the next generation not having the same opportunities as the generation before them. We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Today, global capital can quickly move from one community to another, from one country to another, and there isn’t much sympathy for workers. I think there was more of a consciousness among employers when I started, and during my career, that corporations had a responsibility to communities and to the economic good of the country. I don’t think that consciousness is there now.
What do unions need to do?
Education is key. We have to engage more and we have to use the tools of communication more. People have to understand that if the union is fragile and the union is under attack, they are under attack. That doesn’t just apply to union members; it means society generally. People have to better understand the role the labour movement plays in advancing their causes.
What’s your parting message for corporate Canada?
Don’t underestimate the labour movement. We prefer to have a good solid working relationship in which employers can do well, provided their employees share in the wealth. There are two ways of doing business: You can use a confrontational approach or you can use a co-operative approach—sharing the success of the company.
What does your future hold? Politics?
I’ve never predicted my future. I don’t want to exclude anything. Do something that can support people and then there might be an opportunity. I’m going to reflect a bit and see what comes up, if anything. If it doesn’t help people, I’m not interested.
This interview has been condensed and edited.