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TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian Auto Workers union executives endorsed local leader Ken Lewenza for the job of national president on Tuesday, while his opponents dropped out of the race, clearing the way for him to replace outgoing head Buzz Hargrove.
Lewenza has spent the last 14 years as president of CAW Local 444, which includes the Chrysler minivan plant in Windsor, Ontario.
He will still face a vote by members at the union's constitutional convention later this summer, but likely no opposition after his two main rivals, Hemi Mitic and Tom Collins, dropped out of the race following the executive vote.
"I'm proud to announce that Ken Lewenza is the candidate," Hargrove said at a press conference.
The CAW represents more than 250,000 workers across several industry groups, including about 60,000 in the auto sector.
The change of command comes as the union 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, which is owned by private equity group Cerberus Capital Management CBS.UL.
Under Hargrove the CAW often took public stances on government policy and elections, and Lewenza gave no indication that would change under his leadership.
"We are a workers' institution and we believe that the public profile that the union has, quite frankly, is part of the culture of our union," he said.
Hargrove had originally planned to step down next year, but said he decided to move up his departure to avoid a long leadership campaign that could divide the union.
He recently completed contract talks with the Big Three automakers, well ahead of the September deadlines, avoiding the U.S.-style "two-tier" wage systems that pay new hires at a much lower rate than veteran workers.
However, with thousands of job losses announced in the past year, and some Ontario plants producing bigger-sized trucks and cars that are increasingly unpopular amid high fuel prices, the new CAW leader will immediately face some major issues.
"I think the person going in is going to have a very, very difficult road ahead,' said Anthony Faria, an analyst at the Auto Research Centre at the University of Windsor.
One key to preserving jobs in the southern Ontario auto belt, where the Canadian dollar's rise over the past five years has raised labor costs sharply, will be finding new product lines to replace vehicles that will be phased out over the next few years.
"The existing products that are there may well be nearing the end of their lifecycles, as the market continues to transition towards smaller far more fuel-efficient vehicles,' Faria said.
The new union head will also have to contend with contract negotiations in 2011 that will run concurrently with talks in the United States between the car companies and the United Auto Workers union, which could make it difficult to maintain the CAW's hard line on wages.
Hargrove took the reins of the CAW in 1992, replacing Bob White. Under White, the union became an independent entity in 1985, when it broke away from the U.S.-based UAW.
Born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, Lewenza went to work at Chrysler in 1972 at the age of 18. He was elected shop steward in 1978.
The CAW leadership also announced it will endorse Peter Kennedy for the position of secretary-treasurer.
Reporting by Cameron French; editing by Rob Wilson