Hargrove first became involved in the automotive sector as a line worker for the Chrysler assembly plant in Windsor, Ontario. He succeeded Bob White as president of the CAW in 1992. On July 8, 2008, he announced his intention to retire, before he turned 65, in September 2008. The CAW National Executive Board and staff endorsed then CAW Local 444 president Ken Lewenza to replace Hargrove as National President, and on September 6, 2008, Lewenza was formally elected to the position at a special union convention.
In 1998, Hargrove co-authored the book Labour of Love: The Fight to Create a More Humane Canada with Wayne Skene. Also in 1998, Brock University honoured him with a Doctorate of Laws degree. He has received honorary doctorates from the University of Windsor in 2003, and from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2004. In 2008, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Hargrove is seen as a proponent of social unionism, and his supporters claim that he has steered the CAW to become a more activist union. In the field of electoral politics, however, under his leadership the CAW has broken from its longtime support for the left-wing New Democratic Party and lent increasing support instead for the Liberal Party of Canada.
Tactical voting not only failed to prevent the re-election of the Tories to another majority government, it was blamed by New Democrats for the party's poor electoral performance, returning only 9 Members of Provincial Parliament, down from 17 in the 1995 election.
An attempt, following the 1999 Ontario election, to expel Hargrove from the Ontario NDP was defeated, but Hargrove's relationship with provincial leader Howard Hampton has remained acrimonious.
In 2002, he planned to run for the NDP leadership, but found a "notable lack of enthusiasm" for his potential candidacy. He instead endorsed CAW lawyer Joe Comartin who placed fourth.
Hargrove was initially much more publicly supportive of McDonough's successor, Jack Layton, and the CAW unequivocally supported the federal NDP in the 2004 federal election. The NDP made significant gains in popular vote, although they only gained 5 seats for a total of 19, well short of its aspirations of 40 or more.
Hargrove reportedly played a role in bringing Prime Minister Paul Martin and Jack Layton together to negotiate a budget agreement to keep the federal Liberal government in power in exchange for including NDP proposals in the 2005 federal budget.
However, Hargrove sharply criticized Layton when he joined with Conservative leader Stephen Harper and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe to bring down the Liberal government with a vote of non-confidence in November 2005. He also echoed his earlier criticism of McDonough by suggesting that Layton, too, was not sufficiently moving the party to the left. The eventual bringing down of the Liberal minority government led to a Conservative minority in the subsequent election.
Despite the qualification of his stated support for NDP incumbents and candidates in 40 "winnable" ridings, Hargrove's speech was widely reported by the media as an endorsement of the Liberals. When questioned by a reporter on this, Hargrove also stated that he "did not like the campaign that Jack Layton was running," criticizing Layton for "spending too much time attacking the Liberals." No doubt his photo-op appearance with Paul Martin in matching CAW jackets contributed to this impression. He has been reported as saying that voters should support incumbent NDP MPs and NDP candidates in ridings "where they can defeat the Conservatives."
Traditional NDP supporters were also opposed to aligning their movement with the Liberals, who were embroiled in the Sponsorship and income trust scandals.
Despite being one of Hargrove's 40 endorsed NDP candidates, Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the candidate for Oshawa, blamed his loss on tactical voting. Ryan claimed Hargrove's statement confused potential NDP supporters in his riding and caused some of them to vote Liberal even though the Liberal candidate was not a viable contender. A poll in Oshawa found that the proportion of voters sampled who initially planned to vote for Ryan before switching their support to the third-place Liberal candidate late in the campaign (thinking it might help prevent a national Conservative victory) significantly exceeded the narrow margin of Ryan's loss - if the poll is accurate then the tactic did indeed result in Tory Colin Carrie's election.
Some pointed out that Hargrove's call for strategic voting has also caused financial harm to the NDP under Canada's system of public financing for federal elections, which pays a subsidy to each federal party based on their popular vote.
Hargrove also attacked the principles of Albertans in the speech saying about Harper "His sense, is about Alberta, where the wealth in Alberta, everyone recognizes, is much greater than it is anywhere in Canada. The principles that (Harper's) brought up with, and believes in coming out of there, don't sit well with the rest of Canada." (Harper was actually born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, moving to Alberta only in his early twenties)
The NDP increased their caucus to 29 seats, a significant gain over the 2004 election. Hargrove afterwards argued that strategic voting had in fact prevented the Conservatives from forming a majority government and suggested that the three main opposition parties could form a coalition to get several key pieces of legislation passed.
Following the election, on February 11, 2006, the provincial executive body of the Ontario NDP voted to suspend Hargrove's NDP membership and effectively expel him from the party for supporting the Liberals. This move also automatically suspended his membership in the federal party. Hargrove stated he was "shocked and surprised" by this decision, but he would not apologize for his actions during the 2006 election nor would he commit not to endorse candidates for other parties in the future. On February 23, 2006, Hargrove also confirmed that he would not appeal the Ontario NDP executive body's decision.
Although Jack Layton and Sid Ryan did not support Hargrove's tactical voting, they opposed Hargrove's suspension from the NDP.
The CAW retaliated against the NDP for Hargrove's suspension by severing all union ties with the Party, a move formalized at the CAW's 2006 convention.
On December 9, 2005, Hargrove confirmed that he would seek a sixth and final three-year term as CAW President at the union's convention in Vancouver, British Columbia in August, 2006. This would be the final term that Hargrove would be eligible to serve under the CAW constitution, which provides for mandatory retirement at age 65. Hargrove will be 62 years old by the time of the upcoming CAW convention.
On February 8, 2006, Maclean's reported rumours that, for the first time, Hargrove may face an opposing candidate for the CAW presidency. CAW Local 1256 chair and Oakville and District Labour Council President Willie Lambert was subsequently confirmed as an opposition candidate. In 1999, Lambert won the support of over 40% of voting delegates at that year's Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) convention, in an unsuccessful challenge to Wayne Samuelson for the OFL presidency.
On February 13, 2006, the CAW's former chief economist Sam Gindin raised a series of questions about the political, electoral and bargaining orientation of the CAW in an open letter addressed to Hargrove. That letter, Hargrove's response and Gindin's response to Hargrove were posted on the Canadian political website rabble. Gindin later wrote another piece criticizing recent bargaining concessions by the CAW at the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ontario, which was published in the Socialist Project bulletin on March 22.
On May 22, 2006, auto parts workers at A.G. Simpson in Oshawa, Ontario went on strike against their employer. Hargrove characterized the dispute as a "wildcat" (unauthorized) strike and criticized the workers involved, describing the situation as a "powder keg" that threatened other auto workers jobs. Hargrove's rival Lambert, however, fully supported the workers, joining the picket line and condemning Hargrove's conduct in an open letter. The labour dispute was successfully resolved on May 25, 2006, although the workers involved remained critical of Hargrove and the National CAW's interventions.
On June 22, 2006, the executive committee of CAW Local 1256, Lambert's home local, adopted a motion to reconsider its support for Lambert's campaign and lend support instead to Hargrove. Lambert alleges that the local executive took this action at the prompting of Hargrove's executive assistant, Hemi Mitic, who allegedly threatened to dissolve Local 1256 and merge it into the larger CAW Local 707. Both Mitic and the local union president, James MacKenzie, deny this allegation. The motion to reconsider support for Lambert was overwhelmingly defeated by the general membership of Local 1256 on July 9, 2006, confirming that Local 1256 continued to support Lambert.
The CAW's Constitutional Convention, at which the leadership election was scheduled to occur, took place Tuesday, August 15 through Friday, August 18 at the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre. Delegates were scheduled to vote for CAW executive officers on Thursday, August 17. However, on Wednesday, August 16, the union announced that Lambert had withdrawn his candidacy for CAW president, leaving Hargrove unopposed. This was, however, a half-truth. According to standard union practice, candidates for CAW offices must be nominated before they can run. As Lambert was not himself a delegate, the decision on whether or not he was able to contest the presidency fell to the nearly 1000 elected delegates present. Since no one came forward -- not even delegates from his own local which had recently declared its unanimous support for his candidacy -- Lambert was effectively barred from contesting the leadership and Hargrove was therefore acclaimed for another term.
Basking in the glow of his "victory", Hargrove concluded his acceptance speech by proposing to his long-time girlfriend Denise Small. Small accepted. The two were subsequently married at a small, private ceremony in Toronto on December 22, 2007.
In the 2007 Ontario provincial election the CAW as a union again endorsed strategic voting. Hargrove, however, again went further to slam both the NDP and its leader, Howard Hampton. He told the editorial board of the Toronto Star that the NDP had "lost complete touch" with the people of Ontario and that he saw "absolutely no reason to vote NDP." Hargrove then went on to lavish praise on the Ontario Liberals, claiming the party had been "more left than the NDP over the last four years" and predicting left-leaning voters would vote Liberal in the upcoming election. The Ontario Liberal Party ultimately won a second consecutive majority government.
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