Hargrove, Buzz (Profile)

The presidential suite of the downtown Toronto hotel is not looking terribly presidential. Glossy mahogany surfaces are littered with papers and empty pop cans. There is a constant flow of denim-clad people and a perpetual hum of fax machines. This is the "war room" of the Canadian Auto Workers. In one corner, union leader Buzz Hargrove is on the telephone to Glen Clark. The premier of British Columbia is trying to broker an end to the bitter three-way standoff between the CAW leadership, the federal government and CANADIAN AIRLINES INTERNATIONAL. Management desperately needs the CAW's co-operation to complete a complex financial restructuring plan. But Hargrove refuses to allow his members to accept salary cuts without a firm assurance of job security from the government - and the tone between Ottawa and the CAW has grown snarly. "Glen, I'm done talking to [federal Transport Minister Dave] Anderson," says Hargrove firmly. "That's futile."

Such is another all-too-typical moment in the recent life of Basil "Buzz" Hargrove - a negotiator whose confidence level seems to grow in direct proportion to the seriousness of the situation he is confronting. On this day last week, despite mounting public pressure from Ottawa and from factions within his own union, Hargrove appears confident of success - and very much in charge. In fact, he seems to be thriving on a diet of bile and black coffee. "I'm comfortable in my skin, with who I am," he says. "I've gone against the flow my whole life. I don't find it exhausting at all. I find it exhilarating."

Autocrat, skilled brinkman, bully, artful bluffer: all of those descriptions - and many more - have been applied to Hargrove during the course of his 31 years in the labor movement. But never have the stakes been higher than this year, and Hargrove has plenty to feel good about. Although the deal that emerged early Saturday still seemed out of reach during the midweek impasse, he had successfully bargained Canadian's management down from a 10-per-cent wage cut to just under four per cent. And senior sources at the airline grudgingly admitted that they were impressed by Hargrove's performance. "When we started out a month ago, CAW members weren't very united behind Hargrove and his hard line," says one. "But he's really pulled them together. It's been scary."

Even scarier to some is Hargrove's frenetic pace. He has thrown himself into the fray at Canadian just a week after concluding a gruelling - and modestly successful - round of bargaining with the Big Three car companies. But Hargrove's personal identity is inseparable from the CAW and his vision for the union. Although he squeezes in the occasional round of golf, most of his time is spent on union business. In 1992, when he was elected the union's national president, Hargrove says he gave up jogging to focus on the "very volatile, very political organization." Even his personal relationships revolve around the union movement. He met his first wife, Linda - they divorced in 1992 after 20 years of marriage - on a picket line, and currently enjoys a relationship with another woman who is also a labor activist.

Sacrifices, he says, are a small price to pay for the opportunity to work in a field that he considers as much a calling as a job. "The union binds the human family," says Hargrove, a self-described social democrat. "Society only has meaning if the people who need help, need a voice, get it." Hargrove's voice has certainly become a familiar one in Canada. A longtime member of the New Democratic Party, he led the charge against the budget cuts and layoffs introduced by Bob Rae's cash-strapped Ontario NDP government in 1993. Hargrove accused Rae of betraying the labor movement when, as premier, he forced the renegotiation of existing collective agreements - and the CAW withdrew support and funding from the Ontario NDP. That act helped bring about the party's humiliating 1995 election defeat. The open animosity between the two men surfaced again in Rae's recently published memoir, From Protest to Power, in which his descriptions of Hargrove are, more often than not, scathing.

But even as cabinet ministers and corporate executives vilify him as a stubborn obstructionist, Hargrove insists that he is pragmatic rather than confrontational. "I just respond to my environment," he says. "The business community has tried to isolate labor, to block us from having input. I'm responding to that." And he maintains that his style of union leadership is not, as his critics charge, autocratic or hierarchical. "I think I'm very consultative in my approach," he says. "We're a people organization. I don't hold private meetings - I keep my door open."

The sixth of 10 children, Hargrove was born in Bath, N.B., in 1944 - and credits his Maritime childhood with shaping his strong sense of community and collectivity. "In Atlantic Canada there's a strong tradition of people relying on one another, helping each other out," he says. But at the same time, he was keenly aware of economic disparities in the community. "There were lots of rich farmers in the area - or they seemed that way," he recalls. "We weren't starving, but things were pretty tight all the time."

Hargrove's father, Percy, was a carpenter who worked at logging camps during the winter months. His mother, Eileen, grew potatoes to pay for the children's clothes. Their relationship was not an easy one - Hargrove's father was a staunch Tory, while his wife voted Liberal deliberately to cancel his vote. They separated when Hargrove was 11. At 16 - Hargrove quit school after Grade 10 - he left New Brunswick to look for work, drifting west, and from job to job, for two years. But in 1964, while on his way back to New Brunswick for a visit, he stopped to see an older brother in Windsor, Ont. His brother talked him into filling out job applications at the local auto plants. Within days, Chrysler Canada hired him as a maintenance man on the afternoon shift.

In those days, Canada's automotive industry was under the wing of the Detroit-based United Auto Workers. Hargrove had never before been a union member or, he says, given unions a second thought. Still, he was impressed by Ken Gerard, the plant chairman for Local 444. Gerard helped him to get a job on the line making seat cushions - and he soon became Hargrove's role model and mentor. In 1965, the year the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact was ratified, Hargrove won election as shop steward at the Windsor plant. Around the same time, he joined the NDP and became increasingly involved in politics. "The NDP was a natural fit for me, for my character," he recalls. "I've always been ready to challenge the status quo."

Even within the union movement. By 1978, Hargrove had risen in the ranks to become special assistant to Bob White, then director of the Canadian branch of the UAW. It was a critical time. The Chrysler Corporation was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and the crisis revealed widening cracks between the U.S. and Canadian divisions of the UAW over Canadian autonomy in bargaining, work stoppages and strike pay. Seven years later, White - with Hargrove at his side - led the break with the American union. "They had no respect for Canadian unions, for the difference between our situations," Hargrove says.

Until White left the CAW for the presidency of the Canadian Labor Congress in 1992, the two continued to work closely together. "Hargrove learned at the left arm of Bob White," notes NDP MP Nelson Riis, "and he's got maybe even more guts." Even now Hargrove says his favorite part of the job is the collective bargaining process. "When I don't enjoy that anymore, it'll be time to quit," he adds. For now, however, Hargrove is planning to run for re-election next August - optimistic of victory. "I think that there's confidence in me, support of what I've done and want to do," he says. In some boardrooms of Canada, that cannot be welcome news.

Maclean's December 16, 1996