Poised for a strike against Chrysler Corp. two years ago, the Canadian section of the United Auto Workers never blinked when warned that it was jeopardizing the long struggle to rescue the company from near-bankruptcy.
While U.S. union leaders were urging a wage freeze at Chrysler, Robert White, the aggressive boss of Canada's UAW, led 10,000 members into a six-week work stoppage aimed at gaining big catch-up pay increases.
Against all expectations, White came out on top, and Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca raised wages on both the company's Canadian and U.S. assembly lines.
"Iacocca became personally convinced that he had to make an economic settlement with us" or suffer serious financial hardship, the quiet-spoken White explained afterwards.
With that strike, White broke the UAW's overall negotiating pattern, and the 49-year-old Canadian and the U.S. leadership have grown steadily apart since. The culmination came in Monday's announcement that Canada's 120,000 UAW members would split away and operate with complete autonomy.
At the heart of the friction is White's guiding principle: "No concessions." A union member since his teen-age years, White, who was born in Northern Ireland, is a fervent supporter of Canada's small socialist party, the New Democrats, and a staunch champion of the UAW's long tradition as a trail-blazing union.
Since taking over the Canadian arm of the UAW in 1978, he has mounted an unflagging campaign against wage rollbacks in the face of a severe recession and massive layoffs in Canada.
"Making concessions does not save people's jobs," he has said. "It's a way of finding out who will work cheapest in a shrinking market, and that game makes no sense for workers. Any union that does it will end up being mistrusted by its own members."
Although the Canadian UAW gave up some concessions at the height of the recession, White has achieved a series of stunning victories at the bargaining table in the last few years. In doing so, he has built a reputation as perhaps Canada's most respected and trusted union leader.
At Chrysler and Canada's other Big Three auto makers -- Ford and General Motors -- he is seen as a formidable but reasonable negotiator who can command the full support of his membership, even in the most adverse situations.
"Generally, he's looked on as a tough but fair bargainer," said a Chrysler Canada executive.
White says, "We've got credibility with employers and with our members because we took the 'no concessions' position early and fought hard."
Eschewing retreat tactics, White has discarded UAW leader Owen Bieber's goals of job security, lump-sum payments and profit sharing.
The Canadian auto workers have stuck with the longtime UAW standard of guaranteed annual wage increases. When White says the U.S. approach "does not fit" here, it is partly because the cheaper exchange rate of the Canadian dollar means UAW workers in Canada earn $7 an hour less than their American counterparts, giving White more bargaining room with the Big Three's Canadian subsidiaries.
His position also reflects the fact that Canadian auto workers suffered less during the 1981-82 recession than American union members. Tensions between Bieber and White boiled over during recent bargaining with General Motors, after which White accused the leadership in Detroit of pressuring him to accept a GM offer patterned after its U.S. settlement.
Since Monday, Canadian auto makers have been grappling with the implications of the UAW split. Under the free-trade terms of the 1965 U.S.-Canada Auto Pact, the industry on both sides of the border has become highly integrated, so changes in bargaining patterns could have profound effects on the Big Three's costs, manpower and investment decisions.
But White said Monday, "There's no reason for manufacturers to look at Canada any differently now than they did four months ago."