Bob White and “Final Offer”

This morning brought the sad news that Bob White had passed away.  He was the founding president of the Canadian Auto Workers union – now known as Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada  – and a former president of the Canadian Labour Congress, the national federation of Canadian unions.

White accomplished some incredible things in his long and productive life, but one of his activities is particularly meaningful to me. This is the documentary film Final Offer, made in 1984 by director Sturla Gunnarsson for the National Film Board of Canada. Final Offer chronicles the negotiations that year for a collective agreement between the Canadian branch of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union and Ford Canada.

I show Final Offer in class every time I teach the industrial relations course at the University of the Fraser Valley, and every other instructor I know who teaches industrial relations courses shows it too. There really is no other film like it. It shows the real ins and outs of a collective bargaining process – the balancing of competing interests that goes on within each bargaining team, the intensity of the negotiations, the desperation that leads to strike action, the tactics that each team uses to get its way.

Final Offer has, literally, educated generations of students about how collective bargaining actually works. Whenever I show it in class, I’m amazed at how engaging it is, even for students with little or no knowledge about unions. Perhaps they’re captivated by the f-bombs that are liberally dropped throughout the negotiating process – but that sharp language demonstrates to them that negotiating a collective agreement is not just some dry, formal process. It’s real people, having real conversations, and arguing passionately about important issues.

Final Offer is also important because of its historical value. Purely by chance, the negotiations shown in the film turned out to be the last time that the UAW represented Canadian automobile industry employees in negotiations. Partly because of some of the events during the filming – namely, the willingness of the American union leaders to undercut negotiations in Canada to get better deals in the US  – after these negotiations ended, the Canadian UAW locals started the process of breaking away from the US union and starting an independent union to represent only Canadian auto workers.

Bob White in 1984. (credit: cbc.ca)

Bob White in 1984. (credit: cbc.ca)

This change sparked a huge evolution in Canadian industrial relations. Many large Canadian unions at that time were subsidiaries of even larger American unions, and although Canadian unions were often treated as afterthoughts by their American affiliates, or expected to follow American-based directives that weren’t suitable for Canadian workplaces, many Canadian union leaders feared that Canada-only unions would not be powerful enough or strong enough to survive without the support of an American parent union. The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) showed that an independent Canadian union could not only survive, but could also grow and could get what it wanted in negotiations – and that led a lot of other Canadian unions to go in the same direction. Bob White’s dedicated and single-minded leadership had a lot to do with the CAW being able to blaze that trail for other Canadian unions.

I never had the privilege of speaking to White in person. But in 2013 I was lucky enough to be at the Canadian Industrial Relations Association‘s 50th anniversary conference when White was presented with the Gérard Dion Award, given to “an individual or organization in recognition of their outstanding contribution to our discipline“. I must admit that I didn’t even realize White was in the room before the award was announced, because I was so used to the charismatic frontman of the film.  But although White was visibly older and slower than he was then (as were we all), he still had that energetic twinkle in his eyes that you see in Final Offer when he slams his hand on the table and declares, “It’s one thing for you to tell me I didn’t do good enough. But don’t ever fuckin’ accuse me of betraying the membership.”

White got a standing and heartfelt ovation at that event; I feel honoured that I got to see that, and to hear him speak. And in his remarks upon accepting the award, he graciously attributed being able to accomplish what he did to the skills and commitment of the men and women he had the privilege of working with throughout his career. That lack of pretense, and that willingness to give credit where credit was due, speaks to his character as a leader. The tributes being paid to him today show that the work he participated in – including Final Offer – will continue to be an example and an inspiration.

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