Former Canadian union leader Bob White dies

Bob White, the Canadian labour leader who led the Canadian Auto Workers union's split from its American counterpart and later became that union's founding president and the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, has died at age 81.

White led Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Labour Congress

Canadian union and labour leader Bob White left school at 15 to start working in a factory. (Canadian Labour Congress)

Bob White, the Canadian labour leader who led the Canadian Auto Workers union's split from its American counterpart and later became that union's founding president and the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, has died at age 81.

White died in Kincardine, Ont., on Sunday, according to his family.

White was "a wonderful father" who was always patient, supportive, and proud of his children, his youngest child Robyn White told CBC News.

White left school when he was 15 years old to start working in the same factory as his father, said his daughter, and got involved with the union even though his father warned him not to.

"And very shortly after, he went to a union meeting, and was elected shop steward, and that was that," she said.

"It spoke to him … there was just this invigorating passion, this cause, this fight there, and he was hooked."

Despite leaving school at a young age, White's daughter said he was "a voracious reader" who was highly motivated to learn throughout his career. Inspired by his wife, Marilyne, White also developed a passion for women's rights, and later focused on child labour issues.

Bob White, seen here on CBC's The Journal in 1984, led the Canadian split from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers union to form the Canadian Auto Workers. (CBC)

Throughout his career, Robyn White said her father always took the time to connect with rank-and-file union members.

"He just had this passion for justice, and this fight, and this wanting to really help working people — but people from all over the world," she said.

Robyn White also said her father also cared about ensuring opportunities for the younger generation.

"He made the decision to step down from the CLC even when he could have run for another term, because he felt it was so important to make room."

'He led from the front'

Buzz Hargrove, who served as White's executive assistant when he was the Canadian director of the United Auto Workers and later succeeded White as CAW president, described White as a true leader.

"He was not someone that led from the back — he led from the front," Hargrove told CBC News. "[He] had a lot of courage, had a lot of ideas, had a lot of energy, had a great sense of humour, and a great commitment to the activist leadership and membership of the Canadian Auto Workers union."

Bob White, left, was the founding president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union. He was later succeeded by Buzz Hargrove, right. (John Felstead/Canadian Press)

Hargrove credits White with opening up the union to women, immigrants, and people of colour.

"He wanted a Canada that was open to everyone," he said.

The president of Unifor, the union that now encompasses the CAW, said White leaves a lasting legacy for Canadian labour.

​"Bob was a true maverick in the Canadian labour movement. He will be deeply missed and I extend my condolences to his family on behalf of all of Unifor," said Jerry Dias in a statement. "The CAW was born as a result of his determination and leadership. It is thanks to Bob that we have grown into the strong national union that we are today." 

"Bob White's legacy is a stronger and more equitable Canada, and a labour movement that stands up for Canadian workers," said Dias. 

White was born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland in 1935 and came to Canada in 1949 with his family, settling in Woodstock, Ont. He began working in a wood-working plant at the age of 15, and joined the United Auto Workers union in 1951. He became president of UAW Local 636 in 1959, and was later appointed an international representative for the union.
White, centre, was an influential voice in the Canadian labour movement. He joined the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in a 1997 protest on Parliament Hill. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

In December 1984, with White at the helm, Canadian UAW members split from their U.S.-based parent union and formed the CAW. That split, and White's efforts to secure a better contract for his Canadian union members, were chronicled in the 1985 National Film Board documentary Final Offer. White was elected president of CAW in 1985, and re-elected in 1988 and 1991.

In 1992, White was elected president of the the trade union umbrella group the Canadian Labour Congress. He was re-elected for two subsequent terms before retiring in 1999. He was also the first Canadian president of the OECD's trade union advisory committee.

White became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1990. He was granted honorary doctor of laws degrees from York University, the University of Toronto, the University of Windsor, and the University of Western Ontario, all in Ontario, and St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

White is survived by his wife, Marilyne, children Todd, Shawn and Robyn, his sister Rachel and three grandchildren.