CAW founder Bob White remembered for heart of gold and nerves of steel

Bob White, first president of the Canadian Auto Workers, served as in the role for three terms and fought for workers rights in Windsor.

White served as the first president of the Canadian Auto Workers

Bob White speaks with Barbara Frum in 1984 after Canadian auto workers ended a 13-day strike against General Motors. White died on Feb. 20. (CBC Archives)

Bob White, remembered as a labour leader with a heart of gold and nerves of steel, has died at the age of 81.

White was born in Northern Ireland in 1935, but moved with is family to the Woodstock, Ont. area in 1949.

He left school when he was 15 and became an employee at a wood-working plant called Hay & Co. The United Auto Workers represented workers at the plant and White joined in 1951, according to his autobiography called Hard Bargains: My Life on the Line.

Canadian members of the UAW broke away from their parent organization in December 1984 and formed the Canadian Auto Workers.

Often referred to as the "founding father" of the CAW, White served as the first president of the union, a role he held for three terms.

Chris Taylor, president of Unifor Local 200. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

"His ability to stand up and do what's right for working men and women set a new standard for labour leaders," said Unifor Local 200 president, Chris Taylor.

Splitting from an international union not only took nerves of steel, but "incredible ingenuity," said Taylor, who knew White personally.

Loved by workers

Former national president of the CAW, Ken Lewenza called White a "pioneer of the labour movement" and a role model for many.

"I don't think there was any more recognizable face, no better visionary labour leader and nobody that really inspired  rank and file members and regular Canadians," he said.

That love for workers was returned every time he visited work sites, Lewenza added, recalling a tour of the Windsor assembly plant he took with White years ago.

"So many members left jobs just to shake his hand," he said. "It was just to acknowledged Bob's  leadership and the work that he did."

Dino Chiodo, UNIFOR local 444's president. (Shaun Malley, CBC)

Part of White's enduring legacy involves being a vocal opponent of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, said Unifor Local 444 president Dino Chiodo.

"He was one of the first to speak openly about the unfair components with .. the agreement," Chiodo explained. "It wasn't free at all, it came with a large price and that's job s right here at home." 

Lasting impact on Windsor

Despite his ability to handle tough bargaining talks, White was known for his heart of gold, the according to Taylor.

"Bob was just a person who could be approached on any level regardless of your standing in the union."

Taylor described White's passing as a "huge loss" that would be felt by politicians, labour leaders and workers across Canada.

"I firmly believe that without the vision and commitment of Bob White, our landscape here in Windsor could have been very different."