Special Series: Twelve Canadians
A Union Man’s Windsor
By Stephen Dale
Looking back over a tough 42-year career in the Canadian trade union movement — a journey that took him from the assembly line at Chrysler to the national presidency of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union — what has made the most lasting impression on Ken Lewenza?
Is it the economic meltdown of 2008, when thousands of Canadian autoworkers appeared destined for the unemployment line? At that time, as president of the CAW, Lewenza played a key role in persuading a reluctant federal government to provide financial support for the auto industry, enabling the restructuring that ultimately meant that automobile manufacturing — a huge economic engine in central Canada — would survive.
Or was it the 2013 announcement by Lewenza and his counterpart Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Electrical and Paperworkers’ Union, that the two already-formidable entities would join forces to form a new super-union named Unifor?
Some onlookers hailed that move as a bold step into the future. A bigger union with more clout and a reach that extends into multiple sectors of the economy, they say, is key to maintaining labour’s influence in Canada and to keeping up the fight for decent wages and working conditions and a more egalitarian society.
Those two events are surely landmarks in the recent history of Canada’s trade union movement. But, looking back over several tumultuous decades, Ken Lewenza’s highlight reel contains not just these kinds of seismic national shifts, but also more everyday events unfolding quietly, generally below the radar, at the local level.
As he explains in this audio documentary, Lewenza believes that the labour movement’s continuing relevance to Canadians depends upon unions remaining involved at the community level — championing causes that benefit society as a whole, promoting beneficial policies, and working to improve conditions in the places where people live and work.
Driving through his hometown of Windsor, Ontario, moving from factory to union hall, through public spaces and down quiet residential streets, Lewenza recounts his union’s historical commitment to this idea that labour should have a broader vision of the community it’s a part of.
He recounts stories that may not have made the national headlines, but have affected the lives of many people; how his mentor Charlie Brooks pioneered “social unionism” through support for healthy housing; how his union came to grips with an epidemic of depression and other mental illnesses spawned by the industrial workplace; how workers have built a culture of caring by getting behind institutions like the United Way.
This is a portrait of past accomplishments — and perhaps a glimpse of a brighter future — in Ken Lewenza’s Windsor.
Thanks to the University of Windsor for the use of this archival recording of Ken Lewenza accepting an honorary degree in the Spring of 2013.
Twelve Canadians is a multimedia series about women and men who’ve been devoting their lives to social, economic or environmental justice, and to the healthy development of Canadian communities and the world. Each episode examines a specific issue or situation, through the voices of people who’ve been active in that area. Lots more than just twelve. Thanks to CKUW, University of Winnipeg Radio, and CFUV, at the University of Victoria, for their support in creating this episode.