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Canadian Auto Workers President Ken Lewenza, top, and Dave Coles, president of Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, are both retiring and placing their support behind Jerry Dias to lead Unifor, the merged union.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

When Ken Lewenza needed a break last fall during difficult contract talks with the Detroit Three auto companies, he would wander into an off-track betting parlour on Bay Street in downtown Toronto to bet on horse races. The Canadian Auto Workers president knew within a few minutes whether his bets had paid off.

The outcome of his biggest wager – the merger of the CAW with the Communications Energy and Paper Workers Union of Canada to create a union called Unifor – won't be known for several years.

But it represents the boldest move by the Canadian labour movement to reverse decades of decline and restore itself to a position of power and influence in the national debates about politics and the economy.

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"We have certainly been on defence," Mr. Lewenza acknowledged Thursday as he and CEP president Dave Coles announced their decisions to step aside and make way for a new generation of leadership.

The theory behind the merger is simple: Size matters.

A single union with 300,000 members that is national in scope will be better able to fight back against hostile governments and powerful corporations than two unions that were more regional in nature and did not represent all key sectors of the economy, argues Jerry Dias, tapped by Mr. Lewenza and Mr. Coles to take on the job of president of the new union.

"Our combined efforts between the two unions are to make a bold statement that we're going to fight to maintain the middle class," the 54-year-old Mr. Dias, who is a veteran CAW leader, said over breakfast in the same Toronto hotel where negotiations with the automakers took place last fall.

To understand how size helps, he points to the current debate about whether the federal government should permit U.S. telecommunications giant Verizon Communications Inc. to compete in the cellphone market in Canada against domestic companies Bell Canada, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp., by taking advantage of what critics say are "loopholes" in the government's wireless policy.

Some 20,000 members of the new union work at Bell. As Mr. Dias sees it, the merger means 300,000 union members lobbying the government, urging their MPs to take a stand against Verizon and standing up for their Bell brothers and sisters.

"When you add a sector like the telecommunications sector within a broader union, it just gives you more say," he said.

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Mr. Lewenza believes unions can still be a force if they can convince the broader Canadian public that the interests of their members – decent wages, sufficient time off the job and sustainable pensions for retirees – are also those of Canadians as a whole.

What Unifor and all other unions are facing, however, is a hostile climate among Canadians who believe they have outlived their usefulness and that the very gains that they made have hurt the country's competitive position.

That is reflected in part in the percentage of Canadians in the private sector who are represented by a union. In 1997, 16.7 per cent of the labour force was made up of unionized private-sector workers. By last year, that had fallen to 13.4 per cent, even though the number of Canadians who belong to unions has grown.

"You've got governments attacking collective bargaining and unions as institutions," said Charlotte Yates, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and a veteran observer of Canada's labour movement. "Politicians in many instances have turned the tables to say it's because your neighbour has three weeks vacation that we have public debt."

Nonethess, Prof. Yates agrees that bigger is better when it comes time to battle a federal government that has intervened to end legal strikes and has introduced legislation to force unions to divulge how they are spending their members' money.

She believes the merger came about in part because the Canadian Labour Congress, a national federation of unions, has not led the charge to present an alternative economic and social agenda, something that the CAW has long believed is necessary.

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As for Mr. Lewenza, he will not be spending his retirement at racetracks, the one interest he has outside the labour movement to which he has dedicated 41 of his 59 years. He plans to be an ambassador for Unifor.

"I can guarantee you I'm not going on a rocking chair."

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