Buzz Hargrove describes himself as "full of piss and vinegar." Well exactly. The combative Canadian has been instrumental in his country's union movement since 1964, when he represented a couple of thousand employees in Chrysler's Windsor plant. Now, having announced his 2009 departure from the Canadian Auto Workers' (CAW) presidency, Hargrove's enthusiasm for the labour movement remains undimmed. "I still love it," he says. "If I were 55, not 65, I'd be doing this for another 10 years." That said, Hargrove doesn't think Ford, GM or Chrysler will last that long.
Hargrove first came to the national forefront in 1985, when he assisted then-Canadian-UAW director Bob White in the chapter's secession from the UAW, and the subsequent foundation of the CAW. Hargrove recalls the friction caused by the UAW's top-down approach. "They were going down a road we did not agree with," he recalls.
"They were of the opinion that it had to be the same deal for everyone. We're a separate country. Some of the concessions they made, on health, on strike pay, on benefits, we didn't need to make. In retrospect, it was the best decision we ever made," he declares. "We doubled our membership [from 125k to 255k], and the UAW has gone from 1.5 million workers to less than half a million today."
If the monumental UAW/CAW split is Bob White's legacy, Hargrove's is more difficult to define. He's been CAW president for sixteen years. During that time, through tough negotiation and currency fluctuation, Canada has become one of the world's most expensive places to build cars.
Hargrove acknowledges that it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world. GM-Oshawa's fate will weigh heavily in history's judgment.
"One of my big goals was to take care of Oshawa before I left." Hargrove crossed that one off the list back in May, when GM promised to continue production in Oshawa. Then GM reversed course and decided to close the Oshawa plant. Hargrove claims he was stunned by the move. And he's still bitter.
"I don't know if it's Rick Wagoner or someone else, but someone at GM management lied [to us]. They sabotaged the deal."
As for GM as a whole, Hargrove continues to wax philosophical. "The decision making is day-to-day over there. You can't run a company of that size making decisions like that." As I scribble furiously, Hargrove pours it on: "They did it for the shareholder meeting to say ‘look, we're serious about cutting costs'. The stock jumped, but it went back down."
The parallel to the recent GM-UAW deal almost draws itself: "They did the same thing for the UAW. Well, they got their VEBA, they got their two-tier pay, they got job cuts, and the stock price went up to $35. Now, they still have their VEBA and the stock price is down anyway."
Hargrove was satisfied with Oshawa's eventual semi-reprieve, echoing local president Chris Buckley's assertion that the CAW made the "best of a very terrible situation." Still, Buzz admits the cordial relationship he had with Wagoner was "undermined" by the Oshawa events. The perceived slight prompted some unexpected candour.
"I told Rick it's not a question of if you're going to have to file for Chapter 11; it's a question of when."
My pencil literally dropped on the floor. This from the man whose accountants had a good old look at GM's books before the union signed their latest contract. Recovering, I ask Buzz for Wagoner's response to his comment: "Never."
"I know the reality when I sit down at the negotiating table," Buzz maintains. "You can't continue to lose market share and stay in business." Hargrove's delivered the same message to Chrysler and Ford. "They just haven't shown me how they plan to grow the business." Hargrove believes a Chapter 11 filing is unavoidable for all of Detroit's former Big Three. And he thinks sooner is better than later.
"They're delaying the inevitable. They will lose market share when they file because of consumer confidence, but they're losing it right now anyway. Everyone will take a haircut on what GM owes them, but it will allow them to retool and come out stronger."
Canada, he thinks, will be OK. "They're all making money in Canada… partly because of higher prices. It's the U.S. that is losing money, and it makes the North American numbers look bad. The assets, the plants aren't going to go away. The trustee will continue to make a hot-selling Impala until GM is ready to come back."
"What about the UAW?" I ask.
"The UAW already took a haircut on their last deal," he deadpans.
[Part 2 of this interview will run tomorrow. It will cover Hargrove's thoughts on Canadian labour costs, free trade, political involvement, Cerberus, Bob Nardelli, executive compensation and Hargrove's imminent departure.]