CELEBRATING OVER FIFTY YEARS OF FIGHTING FOR PROGRESS FOR OUR MEMBERS AND THEIR FAMILIES
It is not an overstatement to say that Local 444 has played a significant leadership role throughout its proud history in the battle to improve conditions for the working class.
The visionary leadership of our first president, Charlie Brooks, laid the foundation for a vibrant and dynamic organization that continues to grow. During his tenure (1956-1977), Brooks led Chrysler workers to unprecedented gains in wages and benefits, which had a positive impact on the lives of thousands of workers and families across the land. But his impact went much deeper than that.
Charlie shared with us a broader social vision which tells us that together, we can effect real change not only within our workplaces, but within society as a whole; a community-minded vision which places people before profits.
This vision has been carried forward by those who stepped up to lead Local 444 after the death of Charlie Brooks in 1977. Frank LaSorda (1977-1982), Ken Gerard (1982-1990) and Larry Bauer (1990-1994) each reinforced, nurtured and built upon this vision during their terms in office, not only following in Charlie Brooks' footsteps, but carving new paths in the struggle against the right-wing attack on the working class.
With a united membership and the progressive leadership of our current President, Dino Chiodo, we continue our quest for a just society and an equitable distribution of the wealth that is created through the labour of the working class.
Chrysler workers in Windsor were first organized by the United Auto Workers in 1942. At that time, workers voted 75% in favour of joining the Union. The "Chrysler Division" of UAW Local 195 was formed, which included 3,600 workers. Their first contract secured a wage of ninety cents per hour.
Local 195 was an amalgamated Local representing approximately 60 different units. The Chrysler membership continued to grow, and although the Chrysler Division had enjoyed relative success in collective bargaining under the umbrella of Local 195, by 1956 it was clear that they had outgrown the amalgamated Local. Thus, the birth of UAW Local 444. Charlie Brooks was elected President in July of 1956, and from that point on, it was full speed ahead.
Brooks would lead the Local from that time until his death in 1977. Under his leadership, the members of Local 444 have achieved through their solidarity many significant gains at the bargaining table. Through many sets of negotiations, improvements were established in various areas including wages, protection against inflation (Cost of Living Allowance), improved working conditions, Supplementary Unemployment Benefits, pensions and relief time as well as progress on many other issues. However, these gains were not achieved without sacrifice. In five sets of negotiations occurring between 1956 and 1977, contract agreements were not reached until the membership resorted to strike action, the longest lasting 56 days.
Charlie Brooks died in 1977 after sustaining gunshot wounds from a disgruntled Chrysler employee whom the company had fired. In Brooks' memory, and as a monument to his efforts toward world peace, the "Peace Fountain" was established on the Detroit River at the foot of Coventry Gardens in Windsor, Ontario. His memory was also honoured through the establishment of the Charles Brooks Labour Community Service Award as well as an annual golf tournament which bears his name. During his 21 years as President, he had laid a solid foundation to sustain a vibrant organization with a clear social vision. His contribution will not be forgotten.
After the death of Brooks in 1977, Frank LaSorda stepped into the leadership role for Local 444. Frank had the difficult task of guiding workers through a period during which companies were pushing for concessions. Serving as Local 444 President from 1977 to 1982, LaSorda and the Executive Board of Local 444 provided leadership at a time when it was needed most. LaSorda announced that he would not seek re-election to the post of President, and retired in 1982.
The spirited and fiery leadership era of Ken Gerard had begun. Gerard was a seasoned trade unionist and negotiator who felt that the time was right to recoup lost ground which had resulted from concessions. In his first negotiations as President of Local 444 in 1982, he lead a united membership to a wage increase of $1.15 per hour, and made progress in several other areas as well. These substantial gains were achieved only after 35 days on the picket line.
The concession era had put a strain on the relationship between the American leadership and the Canadian Sector of the UAW. There were clear differences in directions and bargaining strategies. When the American leadership of the UAW was not prepared to accept Canadian autonomy within the International Union, it was only a matter of time before a new Canadian union would be formed. Regardless of these differences, close ties have been maintained and continue to be built upon with our brothers and sisters in the UAW.
The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) founding convention was held in Toronto in 1985. Local 444 alumnus Buzz Hargrove, our current National President of the CAW, was instrumental in the process of forming our new Canadian Union. Ken Gerard, as chairperson of the Canadian UAW Council, had also played a key role in bringing the CAW into existence.
The members of Local 444 had sent out a clear message: the concessionary period was definitely over and was not to be revisited. Although much ground had been made up, there was still work to be done. After a 7 day strike in 1985 and a 6 day strike in 1987, more progress was made and more lost ground was reclaimed. Concessions were now a distant memory, and there was no looking back.
One of the most important issues addressed in 1987 negotiations was the issue of pensions and pension indexing (protection against inflation). Landmark improvements to the retirement plan were achieved and gains were even made for workers who had already retired. These same workers had fought many battles and struggled to achieve many of the benefits our younger workers now enjoy. Gerard was adamant that our retirees would not be left behind.
Ken Gerard suffered a massive heart attack and died in March of 1990 as he was preparing for a bargaining session. He died as he had lived ... fighting on behalf of the working class. To his credit, Gerard had put together a strong Executive Board for LLocal 444 and had been grooming an extremely dynamic individual to succeed him - Larry Bauer. In 1990, Larry Bauer became the fourth President in Local 444's history. He was a charismatic individual who had inherited the fire and emotion of Ken Gerard, as well as the clear social vision of Charlie Brooks. A passionate trade unionist, Bauer possessed the qualities needed to guide Local 444 through a period of transition.
In his first set of negotiations as President in 1990, Bauer lead the Chrysler Master Bargaining Committee to an unprecedented collective agreement. Of particular note, the agreement was reached without a strike, the first time this had ever been achieved in negotiations with Chrysler. Major gains were made in all areas including the economic package, work standards, income security, time off work, city-wide job postings, and numerous other improvements. Not surprisingly, the Membership ratified the agreement by a margin of 95% in favour.
In 1991, the Marine Division of Local 444 was born through a merger with Lake Erie fishery workers. This process had begun in 1986 when Michael Darnell of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union was dispatched from British Columbia to Leamington, Ontario in order to help the workers organize at their request. These workers, predominantly of Portuguese ancestry, were being abused and exploited to no end. They had decided to make a stand, but they needed help. Through many struggles and court battles, justice did prevail for the workers, although only after much sacrifice. The courage and fortitude shown by these workers was exemplary.
Local 444 was now an amalgamated Local, diversifying and expanding its membership to include not only auto workers, but now hundreds of fishery workers as well. This diversification would continue with the subsequent organizing of the Windsor Workers in 1994.
Another major accomplishment under Larry Bauer's leadership was the establishment of a third shift at the Chrysler Minivan Plant. It was always his assertion that the third shift was established not as a result of any one person's effort, but because of the collective effort of our membership working in the Chrysler facilities in Windsor. The track record of our workers spoke volumes, and Bauer pleaded the case well on behalf of the membership. The result: in the fall of 1992, an agreement to add a third shift to the Chrysler Windsor Assembly Plant was ratified overwhelmingly by the membership. With it came 1500 jobs, which were much needed to offset the recessionary job loss that had been experienced in our community as well as the "jobless recovery" which followed. The "alternate work schedule" was established upon introduction of the third shift, which reduced the work day from 8 hours down to 7.5 hours without a reduction in pay.
1993 negotiations brought new challenges. Major improvements to the pension plan and shorter work time were important priorities. Gains were made in both areas, and once again, an agreement had been reached without a strike. Improvements were achieved for past and future retirees and for their surviving spouses as well. Also instituted was mandatory time off the job called "Special Paid Allowance" (SPA). These new SPA weeks created hundreds of new jobs. Providing a job for every person that wanted one was always a huge priority for Bauer.
On May 28, 1994, shortly after being re-elected as President of LLocal 444 Larry Bauer suffered a heart attack and died. Much had been accomplished in four short years. Like his predecessor before him, Bauer left in place a strong leadership team with a clear direction. Just as Larry Bauer had stepped up in 1990 to fill the void that was created by the death of Ken Gerard, it was now Ken Lewenza's turn to do the same.
Ken Lewenza became Local 444's fifth President in June of 1994. His first major challenge as President would be to organize the Windsor Casino Workers. Larry Bauer had been instrumental in bringing the Casino to Windsor, and it was Lewenza's task to ensure that his dream was completed by bringing this new workforce into the fold of Local 444. After an extensive organizing drive, the new Casino Workers voted 87% in favour of joining Local 444.
After more than three weeks on the picket line, the Casino Workers won their first contract in April of 1995. The agreement included an economic package which reflected an approximate 30% increase on average as well as many other benefits. For many of these workers, it was the first time they had ever been on a picket line. To their credit, they held together. The gains that were made in their first contract would not have been possible without the unity that was shown by the workers on the picket line.
As 1996 negotiations with Chrysler approached, many people speculated that these negotiations would bring an easy settlement. This was not to be. The company was proposing sweeping changes to portions of our benefit plan, particularly our drug plan. Bargaining went down to the final hours until finally an agreement was reached. Improvements were established in pensions, benefits, time off work, expanded SPA program which created more jobs, improvement to the economic package and many other gains. Once again, it was done without a strike. Buzz Hargrove and Ken Lewenza would later comment that the workers were solidly behind the bargaining committee, and that solidarity is what brought about the eleventh-hour agreement. The workers had set the bargaining priorities, and they were prepared to strike over them.
Following in the footsteps of Larry Bauer, Ken Lewenza has made education for our membership a key priority. Many educational programs have been offered to our members, programs which are held both locally and at our CAW Family Education Center in Port Elgin, Ontario.
With the addition of the TransAlta power house workers in 1996, Local 444 continues to grow with an increasingly diverse membership. We recognize that our diversity is one of our strengths and our solidarity is where our true power lies. This fact has been proven through many sets of negotiations.
As we move ahead, we will continue to strengthen our ties with workers in every sector of the economy as we work toward the just society we all seek. Social Justice cannot be achieved without economic justice. When we lessen the economic inequities in our society, we move closer to achieving this goal.
A task which is impossible for one person to accomplish becomes possible through solidarity with others that seek this same justice. This remains a guiding principle for Local 444 as our history continues to be written.
Note: Historical data was drawn from Local 444 archives, research and personal observations - J. Hayes