Union leader by day, family man by night

Hargrove’s been ‘leftist and socialist all his life’

Buzz Hargrove says the union movement is fighting back. He talked candidly with the Journal and gave a lecture on campus on March 16.
Buzz Hargrove says the union movement is fighting back. He talked candidly with the Journal and gave a lecture on campus on March 16.

Everywhere he goes, Basil Hargrove manages to create a buzz. Last week, it was on campus.

Hargrove—more commonly known as “Buzz”—has built a reputation as the aggressive and confrontational president of the National Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers’ Union of Canada (CAW - Canada). He visited Queen’s on March 16 to present a lecture entitled “The Current State and Future Prospects of Labour Relations.”

The morning of his lecture, Hargrove set aside a few minutes from editing his speech in a small Policy Studies’ office to tell the Journal about his experiences as the union president, his suspension from the NDP and the new university tuition framework.

Hargrove, wearing a casual suit with a Globe and Mail newspaper tucked under his elbow, said people often confuse his personal and private lives—the staunch defender of unionized workers, versus the friendly family man. In the past, he said, people who have disagreed with him have often crossed the line: his daughter’s and ex-wife’s tires were once slashed, his life has been threatened and bloggers regularly insult him online.

“I have been verbally threatened [with threats from] maiming me to killing me,” he said. “Now that’s pretty personal.”

Hargrove said the recent suspension of his NDP membership is another such mix-up. When the suspension is brought up, his face darkens but he continues on, ever polite. Hargrove explained that his suspension was due to his endorsement of candidates from multiple parties. During the campaign, he endorsed NDP candidates in incumbent ridings, and Liberal candidates in ridings where the NDP were considered unlikely to win. The union made that brand of endorsement their official position after a three-hour debate, he said.

Though he has been offered an opportunity to apologize and commit to never endorsing other parties’ candidates, Hargrove refuses, saying apologizing would only “legitimize the process” that suspended him.

“I carried out that mandate, and I’m not accepting that the party has a right to suspend me, and if they do, it’ll be much harsher for them than me,” he said. “It’s not just me they’re attacking, it’s my union.”

Despite the eventual Conservative government victory, Hargrove said he still endorses strategic voting.

“Did it work?” he said. “Yes, we don’t have a majority Harper government, which would have been, in my opinion, bad for the country.” Describing himself as “leftist and socialist all his life,” Hargrove said he is not a Liberal party supporter, but has been a card-carrying member of the NDP for 41 years. However, he added that during the last election former Prime Minister Paul Martin was more “left” than NDP leader Jack Layton, saying that Layton never once used the words “working class.”

“It’s getting more muddled between the Liberals and the NDP today,” he said. “But I think that’s going to change under the new Liberal party. They are going to move further to the left with their new leader, no matter who it is.”

Hargrove said his first choice for a new Liberal Party leader would be former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who he thinks would be likely to move the party further left. He added that former Conservative and current Liberal MP Belinda Stronach, who is known for being fiscally conservative, would be another strong candidate.

“I think there’s potential for [Stronach] to change and recognize, on some of the issues, the importance of the left arguments,” he said.

Hargrove has been on the union’s staff since 1975 and been re-elected as president every three years since 1992. He said he there have been major changes within labour relations in the past 30 years. Issues like globalization, deregulation and privatization have all had their effects. He added collective bargaining has become more difficult as the private sector refuses demands like higher wages, pensions and better working conditions.

“There’s a level of confidence and arrogance in the employer community that’s unprecedented in my lifetime,” he said. “We’re proud to say the union movement is fighting back.” Hargrove, 61, who has received honorary doctorates from Brock University, the University of Windsor and Wilfred Laurier University, dropped out of high school a few months into Grade 10 because of conflicts with his father. After leaving, Hargrove said he hitchhiked west from his home in New Brunswick, drifting around looking for work. He told the Journal he was 20 years old when he first got work at the Chrysler plant in Windsor as a shop steward. He also joined the union at that time.

Though he would have rather had more educational opportunities, he said, he describes himself as self-educated through union training and experience, as well as being a “voracious” reader.

Concerning the recent changes to the tuition framework in Ontario’s universities, Hargrove said that while students who can afford to pay their tuition should, they shouldn’t have to have a wealthy family to get an education.

“I don’t think the fact that you can’t pay should restrict you,” he said. “As long as the system allows people who want an education to get it, regardless of their ability to pay, then I’m happy to have some who can afford to, pay.”

Though they are not directly related to his work with CAW - Canada, Hargrove said he is up to date on education labour issues. He said he supports Ontario’s college faculties, who have gone on strike to demand more full-time instructors and smaller classes.

Hargrove also suggested that teaching assistants (TAs) should unionize for collective power and to be able to argue for community issues, but not in retaliation to tuition hikes.

“There’s a lot of families out there, who are facing much, much tougher issues than tuition fee hikes,” he said. “They wish that was the only problem they had.” At the end of the interview, Hargrove flips a few pages into his copy of the Globe and Mail and points to a headline: “Harper’s plan helps separatists, Bloc says.” He said the same thing during the election, he says.

“I feel vindicated,” he says, smiling. “Not good, but vindicated.”

—With files from caw.ca and cbc.ca

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