Government protection for Canada’s auto industry and aggressive organizing efforts top the agenda of Ken Lewenza, incoming president of the Canadian Auto Workers union.

“Somehow, some way we’ve got to convince government to enact some manufacturing/industrial policy in Canada that will keep manufacturing in Canada,” Lewenza tells Ward’s on the eve of a special weekend CAW convention to name a successor to Buzz Hargrove.

Hargrove, 64, is retiring after 16 years at the helm of Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.

Lewenza, 53, is expected to assume the top job, having won the endorsement of the outgoing president and the CAW’s board of directors.

Since the 2001 expiry of the U.S.-Canada Autopact, which forced auto makers to assemble as many vehicles in Canada as it sold there, the CAW has coveted similar legislation – with considerable pushback from politicians.

Changing their outlook “will be a challenge for us,” Lewenza admits. But without help, manufacturing in Canada “will fall further in decline.”

The soaring Canadian dollar and rising fuel prices have wreaked havoc with Canada’s auto industry.

Supply-chain employment levels fell to 87,000 last year compared with 106,000 in 2003, according to the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Assn. And Detroit-based auto makers have scaled back production at their Canadian plants as a hedge against declining sales linked to volatile gasoline prices and the resulting consumer shift toward smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

However, the outlook for Canada’s vehicle output remains strong. The province of Ontario will bounce back from 2008’s anticipated 12.7% decline with increases every year through 2011, according to Ward’s AutoForecasts.

By then, Ontario’s vehicle production is expected to hit 2.53 million units, about 12,000 short of 2007’s total. But the growth is largely attributed to Toyota Motor Mfg. Canada Inc., which will launch a new, non-union assembly site this year in Woodstock, ON.

Despite earlier failures to organize Toyota workers, Lewenza remains hopeful that the CAW can add then to its membership “providing our message is right.”

With 250,000 members, the CAW – which also represents workers in industries from aerospace to health care to shipbuilding – is twice as large as it was when it was formed in 1985. But since 2002, its membership among Detroit auto makers has declined to 30,000 from 46,400.

Pensions represent an opportunity to reach out because current CAW members employed by Detroit-based auto makers enjoy defined-benefit programs that are indexed according to inflation rates. But such pensions are a double-edged sword, Lewenza concedes.

When the CAW next negotiates with the Detroit Three in 2011, if not before, “there is no doubt

no doubt” they will target pensions. “They’re coming after us incredibly aggressively in the auto parts sector, today,” he says.

Lewenza is expected to assume the CAW’s presidency, having won the endorsement of the outgoing president and the union’s board of directors. Succession by consensus approval is a decades-old leadership selection process the CAW inherited from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers union, from which it sprang in 1985. Lewenza will be the CAW’s third president.

Hargrove dismisses the notion that Lewenza’s tenure will be a carbon-copy of his time at the top.

“He doesn’t follow any roadmap,” Hargrove says. “He goes by his instincts. He’s a bit like me in that regard, but his instincts in many cases will take him different places. And in most cases he’ll be right.”

Hargrove recalls butting heads with Lewenza after the 9/11 terrorist attacks spawned economic turmoil in North America.

“When vehicle sales dropped by 40% almost overnight and things were looking pretty bleak, I went to (other CAW leaders) and recommended we go into early bargaining and try to get a deal that would help settle things down,” Hargrove recalls. “Kenny rejected it. He really carried the debate with the rest of the leadership.

“That was a good move because in 2002 we put together one of the best agreements we’d ever bargained.”

Similarly, Hargrove credits Lewenza with expeditnig the recent milestone agreement with Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. It was reached in May, four months before the previous contract expired, serving as a springboard to the early conclusion of talks with Chrysler Canada and General Motors of Canada Ltd.

“If we’d just followed the normal pattern of bargaining, we could have never got the settlement we got,” Hargrove says, noting negotiators would typically be dealing with strike targets and deadlines about this time.

The deal, echoed at Chrysler and GM, prevents the auto makers from establishing a permanent 2-tier wage structure that was a prime feature of the UAW’s 2007 contract. But it allows a “grow-in” system that pays new hires 30% less than current employees en route to full wage levels after three years.

In addition, some plants – such as Ford’s assembly site in St. Thomas, ON – were spared from closure. And workers received a $2,200 “productivity and quality” bonus.

On the downside, other sites – such as a GM transmission plant in Lewenza’s hometown of Windsor, ON – were set to close. And cost-of-living payments were frozen for 16 months.

Hargrove says Lewenza, who represents Chrysler workers as president of Windsor-based Local 444, has one attribute no other leader can offer. “Nobody can match him on his passion,” he says.

Insiders say this is a strength and a weakness.

Though less frequently than in years past, Lewenza “tends to put his mouth in gear before his brain,” a longtime CAW official says, affectionately.

A negotiator who has opposed Lewenza at the bargaining table agrees.

“He knows the ins and outs as well as anybody else,” the negotiator says. “He can be a little hot-headed at times, a little emotional. But you can deal with him.

“His approach is, I think, outdated. It’s still, ‘I’m going to bludgeon you and in the end, you’re going to be my friend because of it.’ The charming thing with him is you can argue and fight and yell and scream at each other and 10 minutes later, he can move on. He really can. He doesn’t really hold a grudge long.”

Hargrove maintains Lewenza knows how to temper his enthusiasm.

“He can be strong and tough when he has to be,” he says. “This idea that we have to show our militant face every day on every issue is really ridiculous for a movement as mature as ours. He knows when to be conciliatory. But he also knows when to take on the challenge, as well.”

Says Lewenza: “Usually the first words out of my mouth come from my heart, but that’s not always the most effective. I’m going to have to try to find some balance. But it’s my heart that keeps me ticking.”