Ken Lewenza declined the opportunity to head Canada's new mega union because it needs a leader who will be devoted to it for the next several years.
Mr. Lewenza, who is 59 and has dedicated 41 of those years to union and social activism, said he wanted to retire by age 62.
"The union needs stability over the next – minimum – three years (probably six) to build on the objectives we have established," he said in an interview Thursday.
The president of the Canadian Auto Workers announced his intention to resign at a news conference. Dave Coles, president of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, will also not run for the presidency of the newly merged union, called Unifor.
Jerry Dias, a veteran CAW leader and assistant to Mr. Lewenza, will be the candidate for president supported by Unifor's leadership at a convention that will vote on the proposed merger later this month.
In his first comments on his retirement, Mr. Lewenza told The Globe and Mail it was an emotional decision that developed over the past few months more quickly than he thought was possible.
The merger will create a stronger union because governments and corporations will have to respect an union with 300,000 members in 20 of the largest sectors of the Canadian economy, he said.
"Where we were weak, we're now strong," he said.
He acknowledged that unions have been playing defence in recent years amid globalization, intense pressure from corporations to cut costs and a federal government that has been hostile to the union movement.
His five years as president of the CAW were exceptionally tough. They included the financial crisis and the bankruptcy of Chrysler LLC and General Motors Co., which threatened tens of thousands of jobs in Canada.
The highlight of those five years, he said, was saving more than 10,000 jobs at those two companies and the pensions of about 30,000 GM Canada retirees, whose livelihoods were in particular peril because of a massive deficit in the auto maker's Canadian pension plans.