Ken Lewenza is stepping down as president of the Canadian Auto Workers as the union prepares to join with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada to form a group representing more than 300,000 workers.
Lewenza, who has headed the CAW since 2008, and Dave Coles, his CEP counterpart, said at a press conference today in Toronto that they are “passing the torch.” The two endorsed Jerry Dias, a senior CAW official, for president of the new union.
“Jerry is experienced, determined and will bring compassionate leadership,” Lewenza, 59, whose retirement takes effect Oct. 1, said in an interview. “Those are the real qualities of a good leader. Jerry represented me on a majority of the auto global strategic meetings. He will fit in like a glove.”
The recent bankruptcy of Detroit, the home of General Motors Co. and once the center of U.S. auto manufacturing, is a concern for neighboring Windsor, Ontario, Lewenza said.
“When a community goes bankrupt within spitting distance of you it has a negative impact,” he said. “Will that reality reduce cross-border activity? You have to believe that it will have an impact. The question is how much.”
The CAW and the CEP will hold a founding convention in Toronto on Aug. 30 to elect a leadership team for the combined Unifor union.
Coles, 65, said he’s assisting with the transition and will help to introduce Dias to management teams of companies such as BCE Inc. and Resolute Forest Products Inc. Dias has been an assistant to the CAW president since 2007 and also has worked as a local union president and a shop steward.
The new union plans to focus quickly on increasing its membership base.
“We’ll be organizing workers not currently in unions, and I’ve had discussions with smaller independent unions looking very seriously at Unifor,” Coles said.
David Cockfield, fund manager at Northland Wealth Management in Toronto, said Lewenza deserves some recognition for the part he played in negotiations with the three U.S.-based automakers during the 2008 recession when the auto industry was on the brink of collapse.
“The unions had to give up a lot of ground,” said Cockfield, whose firm manages about C$200 million ($193 million). “But when the company you’re working for has its back to the wall, there’s no use sniping from the sidelines. The unions behaved very responsibly, and they really helped the auto companies weather that perfect storm. He deserves some credit for that as well.”
Lewenza, who will become an ambassador for the new organization as well as working locally in Windsor, said he wouldn’t discount a run for political office. He said he hasn’t yet had time to reflect on his tenure as the head of the CAW.
“As the sports analogy goes, I left everything on the field,” he said. “Somewhere down the road I’ll think I could’ve handled a particular situation differently, but representing workers is about compassion and it is a tough job. I always wished the results were better.”