TORONTO (Reuters) - Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers, knows how to play the part of the tough union boss. Leading the CAW through fraught contract talks with the Detroit Three automakers, he pounds the table and shakes his fist as he argues the union's case, and he's not afraid to swear on camera.
But as Lewenza charts the future of the CAW, which has expanded well beyond its base in manufacturing, the former Chrysler worker has proved more flexible than past leaders, selling a big union merger and tough concessions to a sometimes militant membership.
Even when he is not bargaining with Ford Motor Co, General Motors Co and Fiat SpA's Chrysler Group LLC, the 58-year-old Lewenza is Canada's most visible labor leader, heading up its most influential union at a time when labor's power is waning.
He is up against a strong Canadian dollar, which makes it more expensive to hire Canadian workers, and free trade deals that let companies produce outside Canada.
"It's the worst job in Canada," said independent auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers, who praises Lewenza and his team even though he often disagrees with CAW policy.
Lewenza has a deft touch at building allegiance among local union leaders and members, securing support for contracts even when they offer scant reward. Keeping the rank and file on side is a longstanding challenge for the CAW, DesRosiers said.
"He's really good at managing that relationship, between what goes on in the factory and what goes on up in their offices in Toronto," he said.
Lewenza - "Kenny" to insiders - hails from one of the CAW's most powerful branches, Local 444 in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit. He married young, dropped out of school at 16, and went to work in a gas station. At 18 he followed his father to Chrysler.
Lewenza's generation secured a spot in the middle class thanks to an industry sheltered by the Canada-U.S. auto pact, and contracts bargained by the United Auto Workers. Canadian locals broke away from the UAW to form the CAW in 1985.
By 1994, Lewenza was Local 444's president. He took over from Buzz Hargrove as national president in September 2008, the first person in Hargrove's memory to jump directly from local leader to the top job.
"It was just an unreal time," said Hargrove. Within a year, both GM and Chrysler had filed for bankruptcy.
DesRosiers reckons that leading the Windsor local through tough times gave Lewenza the training he needed to take on the full union, and Lewenza agrees, calling Windsor an "apprenticeship".
A well-paid membership and charismatic, media-savvy leaders have given the CAW outsized political influence. A series of mergers have taken it into workplaces across the economy, from universities to casinos. But the recession and a decline in central Canada's manufacturing sector hit hard, and membership has dropped 26 percent since 2005, according to the union.
In August, CAW delegates approved a merger with rival Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP). If CEP approves the plan in October, they will create the country's biggest private sector union. But the CAW will lose its name and dilute its identity, something Lewenza does not take lightly.
Lewenza frequently chokes up during speeches. He became so emotional as he pitched the merger plan at an August convention that when he sat down, he had to fish out a tissue and blow his nose.
By Hargrove's account, Lewenza became president partly because he was well-liked across the country. At big meetings, Lewenza would rush to comfort nervous or emotional speakers: "Ken would run, I mean literally run, and he's not a small man, down from the podium and give that person a big hug."
But now Lewenza - who has two adult sons, and describes himself as a "short, heavy little guy that's hyper" - must win over outsiders as well.
If all goes according to plan, the new union will devote 10 percent of its C$100 million ($103 million) annual revenue to organizing new members, twice what the two unions combined currently spend. That effort to win over non-unionized workers raises the stakes for Lewenza at the table with the automakers.
With public opinion frequently hostile to unions, he must fend off the perception that union power might stop big companies from hiring in Canada.
Auto talks are "a showcase, in a certain sense, but it's also a showcase for what's wrong with unions," said George Smith, a labor expert at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
If the public sees a constructive "partnership" with the automakers, it may help the CAW, Smith said. "But if it's got the sense of, this is old-line trade unionism, head in the sand, then that is not good for their future."
Tony Faria, who did research for the auto parts industry before becoming a professor at the University of Windsor, is critical of Lewenza, who he says is too outspoken early in talks, tying his hands later on. But Lewenza has surprised Faria by signaling flexibility on issues such as performance bonuses.
"When Ken first got into the position I thought he was far too hard-line, dogmatic, much like his predecessors," said Faria. "He's been a little bit more flexible than I originally believed."
Like earlier leaders, Lewenza has taken a tougher line with the automakers than the UAW, most recently rejecting a permanent lower-wage tier of workers.
But he has given ground on other issues. The CAW's tentative contract with Ford includes no base wage increases, and a hybrid defined benefit and defined contribution pension for new workers. Lewenza touted the deal on Monday, but with a caveat.
"It's a damned good deal," he said, "in these economic times."
Additional reporting by Susan Taylor; Editing by Frank McGurty