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Farewell, Bob White – An Appreciation

February 24, 2017

White left a legacy of smart, gutsy, compassionate trade union leadership

TORONTO OUT Canadian Labour Congress president Bob White delivers his final address at the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto May 3, 1999. He is scheduled to retire this week. (JEFF GOODE/TORONTO STAR)

Bob White, who died of undisclosed causes on February 19, 2017, was one of my heroes and I’ll miss him, as will many working people all over Canada.

I wasn’t close friend, more an admirer from afar. As a communications representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees CUPE, I was often awed by his ability to attract media attention and deliver a succinct comment with great confidence.

He seemed to have an instinct for what reporters would consider newsworthy. At federal budget lockups, for example, Bob would rush over and excitedly share his headline with us union flak catchers. Almost invariably, he made the headlines more than any other leader of the day.

I recall visiting a Toronto Star labour reporter in hopes of finding out how we could entice him to grant our national president the lead quote on a given story. Why always give White the quote? He demonstrated his response by calling three or four labour leaders in search of a salient quote for a story he was preparing. In the end, the only leader that answered his own phone with a ready reply was Bob.

Was he a perfect hero? Not likely. Find me someone that is. But as near as I know, he was always true to the workers he represented at the Canadian Auto Workers, a breakaway from the American union that is depicted in the biographical film Final Offer.

As Canadian Labour Congress president, he often spoke truth to power. As one of the obituaries put it, Bob “was a street-smart leader, an excellent orator and a risk-taker who was always confident of his vision.”

Herman Rosenfeld at rankandfile.ca summarized Bob’s contribution: “He inspired thousands of Canadian workers to embrace unionism, and to oppose concessions, and subordination of union ideals on the alter of competitiveness. He taught many of us that unions can be more than simply go-betweens with large corporations and that union leaders can grow and change, like working class leaders of all strata.”

Despite his fame as a tough negotiator and decision-maker at the top levels of the labour movement, Bob always seemed to have time for the rest of us. The “us” included me, a union staffer that was a ways down the food chain. As someone observed to me recently, he was everyone’s friend, but he was capable of putting you in your place with a cutting remark if he disagreed with you.

Bob often visited me during conferences and conventions to share a coffee and some observation or another about the proceedings. When I was involved in the making of a national TV documentary, Bob joined us in the control room to offer an encouraging word.

When Bob and spouse Marilyne, also a CUPE representative, travelled to New Zealand where I was living at the time, they took time out to visit me. Bob wanted to know everything about my job with an education union. That was another of his many qualities: an ability to show genuine interest.

Bob was always learning, always ready to learn. He changed his attitude on some issues and held fast to others learned over a work life that started when he was 15.

Many others will no doubt offer their memories of Bob and they will have had a much more active friendship with him. But I wanted to salute him and to say farewell to this most dynamic of Canadian labour leaders, a friend to workers, and a friend of mine.

So long Bob. It was good to know you. And thank you for strengthening my will to fight labour’s battles.

My condolences to Marilyne and the rest of the White family.

Final Offer is available online here. His family-written obituary is here. For a thoughtful personal memory of Bob: https://artkilgour.com/2017/02/21/bob-white-was-progressive-charismatic-and-fearless/ . Herman Rosenfeld’s comments are here: http://portside.org/2017-02-23/remembering-bob-white .

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