Labour movement shaped Bob White's leadership and humanity

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Photo: Phil Roeder/flickr

I saw a kind of apparition as I drove along the lakefront Tuesday: pickets with signs, on a strike or lockout. A sales promo? Film shoot? In the recent past you'd just think: Workers fighting back. Back in the day, all newspapers used to have a full-time labour reporter. It didn't mean they were pro-labour any more than having a Moscow correspondent meant they were communists. They just went where the news was -- emphasis on "was."

Bob White's death at 81 last Sunday was like that. It got noted in the mainstream media, but flashed by. As if they knew guys like him mattered but couldn't recall why. It would be like reporting who won the Stanley Cup but not knowing what sport it was awarded for.

It's ironic that White died the same week a judge ordered the transit union in Toronto to reinstate their elected leader, who had been deposed by its U.S. union headquarters. Someone even suggested that was a tribute to White -- because he led Canadian autoworkers out of their U.S. union to independence in the 1980s. It was a resounding call for national dignity and it wasn't easy for White, who came of age in that union. But he wouldn't let them dictate settlements to Canadians and said he'd wrap himself in the f-----g Canadian flag if he had to. He was as fearless taking on his own side as against the Big Three automakers.

(We know all this because he let an NFB crew film his 1984 negotiations with GM and, when it turned into a death struggle with U.S union HQ, he let them stay. When I agree to something, I'm all in, he said.)

It's especially hard to lose him at a time when leadership in most of the world is so conspicuously puny. The worst have always risen to the top easily but the best, not so much. He had a genuine charisma, in Max Weber's original sense: leaders who inspire loyalty in others through something inexpressible yet recognizably trustworthy. He was that kind of natural. When he squatted down to talk to a kid, you knew he knew a camera was there, but you also knew he knew that's how to treat kids, workers, or anyone, with respect.

Like all great labour leaders (a category that used to be as obvious as great hockey players), he felt it wasn't just about getting more stuff for his members; it was about addressing the social roots of inequality and ugliness. It would have made perfect sense for him to move on and lead the NDP. But NDP elders, such as Ed Broadbent and Stephen Lewis, declined to encourage him, maybe because he wasn't of their professorial ilk and hailed from the workers themselves.

He'd come from Ireland at age 12 and left high school to work in a factory. He swore a lot (he said he never got credit for 10 years of Sunday school). Instead, they chose Audrey McLaughlin, who's faded from history much as she used to fade right in front of you.

So he became head of the Canadian Labour Congress, to pursue those larger matters, but it was harder there. Probably because he missed the direct contact with working people that had always nourished him. Ottawa kills.

Speaking personally, it was White who made me feel welcome, versus a pariah, in the "House of Labour." Previously, I'd been anathematized for working with a renegade group of independent unions. I'm not whining, I'm kind of proud of it, but it was a delight collaborating with him and sometimes bargaining hard over material I wrote for occasions like elections. (Always voluntary, not paid.) If he saw other unionists getting edgy about some of my views, he'd bark, "Go write your f-----g ad!" and deal with the tetchy brothers and sisters himself.

Final thought? Leadership -- the ability to bring out the best in others -- is among the rarest social resources, and White's would've been squandered had there been no labour movement in which to emerge. It gave him a chance to be who he was, and I think that's how he understood its importance for others. Before he went onstage to debate free trade before a national TV audience during the election of 1988, he mused, "Not bad for a guy with Grade 10."

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Phil Roeder/flickr

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