Prime Minister Buzz? Not so much, Hargrove says

Prime Minister Buzz? Not so much, Hargrove says


Andrea Janus, News
Updated: Sat. Oct. 24 2009 7:11 AM ET

Not long after he announced his retirement as president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union in July 2008, Buzz Hargrove was asked if he would run for the Liberals in the next election.

He briefly considered the idea – after all, he had been turfed from the NDP after the 2006 election for proposing strategic voting to defeat Conservative candidates.

But Hargrove, one of Canada’s best-known rabble-rousers, figured the hallowed halls of Parliament Hill were too unruly, even for him, and he was content to continue to advocate for workers, and the auto industry, from outside Ottawa.

"It seems like every day in the House and the legislatures across the country, political parties of all stripes are just trying to find a way that they can attack the personal side of individual members of Parliament or the prime minister or whoever," Hargrove told in a telephone interview earlier this week.

"And that’s not the politics that I grew up with. You stuck with issues and you challenged people on issues and what they stood for. So I just didn’t see standing up in the House and criticizing somebody for an expense sheet that they billed for a coffee or something as being very substantive or contributing much to the country."

Hargrove reveals his brief flirtation with politics in a new book entitled, "Laying it on the Line: Driving a Hard Bargain in Challenging Times," which hit store shelves this week.

While the book offers a behind-the-scenes look at the rough-and-tumble world of contract bargaining (and the sometimes harder job of selling those contracts to the workers), it also makes some startling revelations.

One is the story of Magna chief Frank Stronach, famously anti-union, approaching the CAW in the early 1990s for a loan. Struggling to cope with too much debt, Stronach met with Hargrove and his assistant, Hemi Mitic, to ask for a loan from the union’s strike fund.

In return, Stronach would encourage his employees to join the CAW, Hargrove writes.

Stronach, it seemed, may have thought the CAW had a strike fund similar in size to the $500 million fund of the United Auto Workers, from whom the CAW had split five years before.

When he was told the CAW had a mere $22 million on hand, any hope of a deal died. But Hargrove was impressed that Stronach would turn to the unions in a time of need, and so reached out to the Ontario government to help Magna restructure its debt.

"(Stronach’s) quick reversal from an anti-union capitalist to the working man’s friend was impressive, and proved that many business principles go out the window when enough money is involved," Hargrove writes.

Hargrove also makes some less startling revelations, such as his opinion of current federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, whom he calls "stubborn and short-sighted," and all-out incompetent.

He also criticizes former Chrysler head Lee Iacocca’s "dramatics and substantial ego" and Telus CEO Darren Entwistle for being "arrogant and aggressive."

When asked if he’s worried about a backlash, Hargrove replies:

"My answer to those who aren’t happy about what I say about them is, ‘Write a book and say what you want about me.’"

Saving the auto industry

But the book isn’t all about lashing out at his adversaries. When Hargrove left his post at the CAW (it was mandatory that he retire at age 65), he did so several months early to avoid a long and potentially divisive succession battle.

Only weeks later, the worldwide financial crisis exploded with the collapse of banking giant Lehman Brothers. Not long after, automakers began looking for government bailouts and concessions from workers to stay afloat.

Sitting on the sidelines during the early stages of negotiations, led by his successor Ken Lewenza, was a difficult experience for Hargrove, who said he had "regrets" about stepping down early.

"Oh, it was incredibly tough. I don’t think I’ve had a tougher experience in my life," Hargrove said. "Not that I didn’t have complete confidence in Kenny and…the guys I’ve worked with all these years, but having been part of every debate, every crisis that the industry faced over all these years, it was a real challenge for the first time to be sitting on the sidelines and having little or no input."

Hargrove says he wrote the book primarily to put pressure on the government to ensure the recession doesn’t swallow the Canadian auto industry, to devastating impact on the country’s economic health.

He has long advocated for a deal with Asian automakers similar to the Auto Pact between Canada and the United States, signed in the 1960s, which guaranteed auto manufacturing north of the border and created tens of thousands of new jobs.

For years, Japanese car manufacturers have flooded the Canadian market with their products, while closing their markets to North American vehicles.

Hargrove believes an Auto Pact-like deal with Japan, South Korea and even India could save the Canadian auto industry.

"It can be balanced over a period of time, but (the Auto Pact) led to the surge in investment and employment by the American companies in Canada. It wasn’t their goodwill, it was government policy, and that’s what we need today dealing with the new players that are now dominating our market," Hargrove said.

Hargrove’s position is not new, and successive governments have flat-out rejected a new auto pact with Asian manufacturers. But he won’t stop advocating for the Canadian auto industry and its workers.

"(The ideas) fall on deaf ears," Hargrove said, "but I’ve always been a firm believer that just because people aren’t listening you don’t quit talking."

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