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 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 UAW.
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".