Hard Bargains: My Life On the Line

by Bob White
390 pages,
ISBN: 077108837X

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by Dasmond Morton

By now, not many Canadians need to be told who Bob White is. Arguably, the ex-farm boy from Northern Ireland is the bestknown trade unionist the Canadian Labour movement has generated.
If Bob White tends to be a little cocky, he has plenty to be cocky about. At 22, a highschool dropout and newlywed, he fed his first strike against a tough, antiunion multinational and won. At 25, he had won a place on the United Auto Workers' organizing staff. Such was his ability that when Dennis McDermott became the UAW's Canadian director, White became his assistant - even though he had favoured McDermott's rival. In the kill-or-be-killed style of intro union politics, only White's talent saved him.
For both men, it was a great arrangement. White carried an Incredible workload for the easy-going McDermott, sacrificing his first marriage and some of his health in the bargain; in turn, he learned from McDermott's broad social vision. While the UAW south of the border gradually forgot Walter Reuther's political radicalism, McDermott and White gave Canadian auto workers a role in social change they had never played before.
That political divergence was no more than a hairline crack in UAW solidarity. White claims it might have been patched if he had played bail with Doug Fraser and the UAW's American leaders. Instead of heading the Canadian Auto Workers, Bob White might have gravitated, like the Steelworkers' Lynn Williams, to the very top of a major international union.
Why that proved impossible is the core of Bob White's book. Faced with the deindustrialization crisis of the past 10 years, Fraser, Oven Bieber, and most UAW leaders in the United states put the brakes on union militancy and sought safety through collaboration. White and the Canadian UAW refused. Worse, thanks to the Auto Pact, greater productivity, and a shrinking Canadian dollar plus some extraordinary bargaining talent -- White got better deals for his Canadian members than his own UAW leaders could tolerate. The outcome, filmed by the National Film Board and transformed into a prize-winning movie, Final Offer, was a crisis that led to a messy divorce.
No one, least of all the author, would pretend that Hard Bargains is a work of balanced objectivity. No genuine autobiography ever is. Nor does it reveal a man of profound philosophy or consistent ideology. Why should it? It is the story of a man of rare talent, energy, integrity, and luck, whose life has been too full to allow for ivory-tower reflections. Instead, Bob White's philosophy could be shaped by involvement in an idealistic, democratic union. What better school could he have had in a secular age?
Readers of Hard Bargains will not learn much about Bob White's social vision or his political ambitions - beyond the firm insistence that he will be gone from the CAW long before he is 65. What they will get is unique understanding of an insider's experience of union politics, organizing, and bargaining. Very rarely have the breadand-butter realities of organized labour been more clearly laid out. Critics who wonder, why unions don't organize the unorgaized, or talk of "labour bosses," might learn a lot from Hard Bargains. So could labour sympathizers.
And so can people who wonder how Canada will fare in Brian Mulroney's "special relationship" with the United States. Few Canadians have had more experience than Bob White in dealing with Americans - in management and in his .own union. When Bob White condemns the freetrade deal of October 4,1987, he speaks as a bargainer far tougher and more experienced than the famous Simon Reisman.
Bob White is not universally liked. In the labour movement and beyond, critics condemn his tactics and his personality. Some of his success depends on the only quality Napoleon wanted from his generals luck. Canadians lack hers because, with great regularity, we hunt for their flaws and seek to cut them down to even less than human stature. That may be Bob White's fate. Meanwhile, what he has done so far deserved a book. Thanks to June Callwood, it is a better book than it might have been - and this is very good indeed.

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