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TORONTO (Reuters) - After 16 years of fighting to hold the line on jobs and wages as head of the Canadian Auto Workers union, Basil "Buzz" Hargrove will step down in the midst of a deepening crisis engulfing the North American motor vehicle industry.
Hargrove, who has led the CAW -- Canada's biggest private-sector union -- since 1992, said on Tuesday he will retire after a vote is held to elect his successor. The vote will be held by September 15 at the latest.
Many had thought Hargrove would remain in his job until next March, when he will reach the mandatory retirement age of 65.
Hargrove told a news conference he is stepping down early to avoid a lengthy leadership campaign that could divide the union, which is already under threat from plant closures and a deteriorating relationship with key employer General Motors.
Last month, GM said it would close its Oshawa, Ontario, truck plant, with the loss of as many as 2,600 jobs.
That announcement came fast on the heels of contract talks that many had considered a coup for Hargrove and the union. He had managed to complete contract agreements with the "big three" U.S. automakers months ahead of schedule and with fewer wage concessions than many had expected.
The union said it was double-crossed by GM on the Oshawa plant, but the company said it was forced to close the plant early because of a severe shift in the market for pick-up trucks and SUVs.
Hargrove said his final task as CAW head would be to try to resolve the dispute with GM.
"If there's any regret at all, it will be if we can't find a solution to the GM Oshawa thing before I leave. I will feel bad about that," he said.
GM, meanwhile, has only seen its problems deepen over the past few weeks, as falling demand for its large trucks and SUVs has prompted the automaker to announce more production cuts and promise more cost-cutting.
Through his career, Hargrove has been no stranger to public battles. The union leader was rarely shy about fighting his battles in the news media, frequently calling new conferences to lambaste a contract offer that wouldn't meet the CAW's position on wages or benefits.
"I think Buzz thinks his legacy is going to be that he has maintained and he has achieved for his workers extremely good wage rate and benefits, which he has," said Anthony Faria, an analyst at the Auto Research Centre at the University of Windsor.
"But that has resulted in Canada being very likely the highest automotive labor cost country in the world."
In addition to high labor costs, the Canadian industry suffers from a currency that has risen 60 percent against the U.S. dollar over the past six years, raising the cost of cars built in Canada.
Hargrove has had to deal with plant closures, layoffs, and worries that production lines for large-size sedans and trucks may also shut down.
U.S. auto sales plunged last month to a 15-year low as gasoline prices climbed to record highs, a deep housing crisis showed few signs of ending and consumer confidence continued to flag.
The CAW represents more than 250,000 workers across several industry groups, including about 60,000 in the auto sector, which is dominated by plants owned by General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and Chrysler LLC.
Born in Bath, New Brunswick, in 1944, Hargrove dropped out of high school and worked on the assembly line at Chrysler's operations in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit.
He joined the union's staff in 1975, at a time when the union was the Canadian arm of the U.S.-based United Auto Workers.
In 1978, Hargrove became assistant to director Bob White, and played a big role in the union's break from the UAW in 1985.
Hargrove was also a prominent voice in Canadian political circles. In 2002, he considered running for the leadership of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, but decided to stay with the CAW.
In 2006, Hargrove urged union members to vote for the more centrist Liberals as they had the best chance of defeating the right-leaning Conservatives. The move prompted the NDP to suspend his membership.
His departure comes as Canada's minority government girds for an election expected over the next year.
Asked if he would consider running for office, he said he had no plans to do so.
Reporting by Cameron French; Editing by Peter Galloway