By Craig Saunders
Working on the Canadian political left is like walking a minefield. It's almost impossible to rise to a position of authority without making enemies within the ranks. Every NDP premier knows this, as do most veteran activists. But few march straight into that minefield with the gusto of Buzz Hargrove.
Hargrove formally stepped down as president of the Canadian Auto Workers union at the beginning of September, 44 years after he stepped onto the assembly line at the Chrysler plant in Windsor, Ont. His career is one of the most controversial in Canadian labour history. Not only is Hargrove a scrappy and strategic negotiator, he's also a fiery personality who doesn't normally mince words, and who possesses a legendary temper.
Depending on whom you ask, Hargrove is either a great leader who has carried his union through the greatest challenges in its history, or a self-serving turncoat. To some, he’s a bit of both.
“We’ve changed the face of the union. I leave it, I think, the most open, progressive, democratic union that I’ve experienced around the world," he says.
During his tenure, the union has established caucuses for gays, lesbians and transgendered people, hired people of various sexual orientations in its upper ranks, and required that women be represented on the board. Those are changes Hargrove is proud of, as is the union’s increased com-mitment to social projects. Today, the union leadership meets three times a year, each time doling out up to $500,000 to social projects ranging from shelters to anti-poverty movements, international development, disaster relief and housing.
Hargrove’s been at the forefront of major changes — the CAW's split from the United Auto Workers being paramount among them. Changes to the union's constitution and the way it negotiates have meant that the CAW has merged with more than 30 unions and more than doubled its membership to 255,000 during Hargrove’s reign. Unquestionably, it’s an impressive legacy.
But it’s one that’s come at a cost, both personally and politically. Hargrove’s angered many former allies, including the NDP, the UAW and other unions. And many former friends have become critical of his tactics.
Hargrove’s tough demeanour comes naturally. He’s a high school dropout from Cape Breton, one of 10 children and, from the age of 10, the child of a single parent. His first job was picking potatoes for 50 cents an hour. After drifting around Western Canada for a few years looking for a better way to make a living, he took the advice of a brother who was working at the Chrysler plant in Windsor. He was 20 when he started work at the plant and joined local 444.