We mourn the passing of activist Bob White

“We have lost a formidable leader who truly understood the intersection of social justice and labour rights.” — Larry Brown, National Union of Public and General Emplyees President

Ottawa (21 Feb. 2017) — Canada’s unions are mourning the loss of a great and inspirational leader, former Canadian Labour Congress president Bob White, who has died at age 81.

Bob White remembered as tough negotiator, fearless leader

“Bob was a courageous leader who blazed a lot of trails in the labour movement,” said CLC president Hassan Yussuff.  

He worked tirelessly to keep Canada’s unions strong.

“Bob embraced change and recognized that in order to stay relevant, unions had to adapt and welcome leadership from women, workers of colour and all equity-seeking groups,” said Yussuff.

White became President of the Canadian Auto Workers at its founding convention in 1985, where he served until being elected President of the Canadian Labour Congress in June 1992. He was re-elected in 1994 and retired in 1999.

White fought as for social justice as for labour rights

Through that time he was recognized around the world as a staunch defender of human rights and social justice, and was also an icon in Canada’s anti-apartheid movement.

“We have lost a formidable leader who truly understood the intersection of social justice and labour rights,” said Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). “He fought for fairness, and equality, not only for organized labour but for all workers. He made a difference in the lives of workers across Canada and worldwide. Bob will be sorrely missed.”

White championed fairness for workers around the world as the first Canadian President of the OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) and as chair of the Human and Trade Union Rights Committee of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, now called the International Trade Union Confederation.


Bob White was 81. 

White was the influential leader behind the decision of Canadian autoworkers to split from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers and establish their own union in 1984. 

White served as the Canadian Auto Workers’ president from 1985 until 1991, a period when the union was at the height of its power, representing most of the Canadian employees of the major U.S. automakers. 

He died Sunday at a long-term care facility in Kincardine, Ont. 

Unifor, which was created in 2013 from the combination of the CAW and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, said he “passed away peacefully” without specifying the cause of death.

“He was a hero to so many of us,” said Unifor national president Jerry Dias on Monday. “He was a pioneer when it came to Canadian workers controlling their own destiny and showing we can stand up to large American corporations as a small country. He provided the courage to show that we can do this.”

Dias described White as an aggressive but brilliant negotiator, “a master” who had the courage to make tough decisions. 

Throughout the 1980s, White, who served as director of the UAW’s Canadian region, was not afraid to challenge the major American automakers, even if it meant breaking ranks with the union’s leadership. 


In 1982, White led Canadian workers through a five-week strike at Chrysler that was opposed by UAW leaders. Chrysler eventually agreed to a $1.15 per hour pay increase for Canadian workers, which led to a similar deal for American workers. 

“You sure felt a lot stronger when you had Bob White sitting beside you,” Dias said. 

Two years after the Chrysler negotiations, Canadian workers broke away from the UAW under White’s leadership and formed their own union. 

The National Film Board of Canada documented negotiations between the UAW and General Motors. The film, Final Offer, showed the tensions between American and Canadian sectors of the UAW during talks, and how White led Canadian workers out of the union.

White was one of Canada’s most influential union activists. In a 1985 profile in the Star, he was described as “without doubt the most powerful Canadian politician never to have been elected to public office and a man whose pronouncements from the left reverberate across the political spectrum.” 

As CAW president, White was a staunch opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He had called free trade “the biggest fraud perpetrated on the Canadian people in history.”

After leaving the CAW, White became the president of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1992. 

“Bob was a courageous leader who blazed a lot of trails in the labour movement,” said CLC president Hassan Yussuff in a statement. 

“He will be remembered by all of us for his fearless leadership and his commitment to social justice for people in Canada and around the world.” 

White was born in 1935, and arrived in Canada from Northern Ireland in 1949. He quit school at 15, and two years later he was working as a union steward at a small wood-working firm in Woodstock, Ont. He led his first strike there in 1957 at the age of 22, taking 500 workers off the job.

Condolences from people who worked alongside White poured in Monday. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his condolences on Monday afternoon. 

“Bob White stood up for Canadian workers and fought for a more equal country,” PM Trudeau offered. “My sincere condolences to his family, friends and former colleagues.”

“Deeply saddened by news of Bob White’s death,” former Ontario Bob Rae wrote. 

“He was truly visionary and courageous man + did so much for social justice + working families.” 

The Canadian Federation of Nurses Union also took to social media to express their condolences. 

“It was his vision + strength that brought the CNFU into the Canadian Labour Congress. RIP brother Bob White.”