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TORONTO (Reuters) - The Canadian Auto Workers elected longtime union activist Ken Lewenza as its president on Saturday, bringing what outgoing President Buzz Hargrove has said is a change "more in style than substance."
Lewenza, 54, is expected to hold the union's tough line on issues like refusing concessions in contract talks, rejecting a two-tier system for wages, and lobbying the government on trade issues it sees as unfair.
The Windsor, Ontario, native has spent 14 years as president of the CAW Local 444 in Windsor, which many see as one of the most militant in Canada.
He had no competition in the race to head the union, which has seen its power ebb as automakers run into problems selling their larger cars and trucks in North America.
"It's incredible, the kind of popularity and the confidence he commands in the rank and file of the CAW, or with the workers in general," said Pradeep Kumar, professor emeritus at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.
"He is a very, very charismatic kind of person."
The Canadian Auto Workers union is the country's largest private-sector union, with around 250,000 members in 17 different sectors of the economy, including some 60,000 in the auto industry.
That sector has been battered by layoffs and plant closures at the Canadian operations of U.S. automakers General Motors Corp (GM.N), Ford Motor Co (F.N), and Chrysler LLC, owned by private equity group Cerberus Capital Management LP CBS.UL.
"He's (Lewenza) got a real challenge with the auto sector of the union continuing to downsize and no end in sight," said Hargrove, who started his union career at the same local.
Canada's auto sector has been hit by the economic slowdown in the United States, where nine of every 10 cars manufactured in Canada are sold. U.S. auto sales fell in August for the 10th-straight month, and sit near a 16-year low.
High gasoline prices, and a strong Canadian dollar, which makes Canadian goods more expensive abroad, have also hurt.
Lewenza has already shown his toughness. In March his local went on strike against auto parts maker TRW Automotive Inc, winning a wage increase of more than 30 percent by 2011.
In politics, Lewenza supported New Democratic Party in Windsor. But he is a pragmatist and was a key player in the CAW's adoption of strategic voting in the last federal election when it endorsed the Liberal Party, which it saw as the party with the best chance of winning that it could work with.
Recently there had been speculation that Hargrove would run as a Liberal candidate in the upcoming federal election, widely anticipated to be called on Sunday for October 14, but he put that notion to rest.
"Politics -- No, I've ruled that out. I've thought about it, I really did. Talked to my family and friends and we just made a collective decision that that's just getting back on the planes and trains and hotel, motel circuit and I just don't want to do that."
Editing by Eric Beech