WHEN Robert White led a strike against General Motors of Canada last October, the American leaders of the U.A.W. were as annoyed as the company executives.
It was bad enough, they felt, that the articulate and independent head of Canada's United Automobile Workers had disregarded the pact already negotiated across the border. And worse, his strike stopped the important flow of parts from Canadian plants to the United States, forcing G.M. to lay off almost 15 percent of its American work force.
But for the American labor leaders, there was an even greater irritant. Mr. White's strike was a clear violation of a long-treasured - and often- spoken - rule: In the U.A.W., there is always teamwork in the leadership and solidarity in the ranks.
The 13-day October strike challenged that unity head on. And now, in a sharper blow, Mr. White's 123,000- member union is seceding entirely from its American parent, stepping out of a 50-year relationship long dominated by the Americans.
''It has nothing to do with anti- Americanism,'' said the well-tailored and personable Mr. White of the schism. ''It has to do with the structure of our union. We will be accountable for what we put on the bargaining table and what we take off. There will be no more blaming anybody else.'' And that, he said, is enough to justify secession.
For Mr. White, who will turn 50 on April 28 but looks a decade younger, the split means that he can try to expand his union through mergers with other Canadian unions and that his already-extensive power will grow. His membership is solidly behind him and many of his Canadian colleagues pushed him to break with the Americans. And he is extremely popular across Canada.
''White may represent the closest thing to a bonafide superstar Canadian labor has ever had,'' said an Ontario newspaper, The Windsor Star. In its view, ''the North American auto industry has produced only two personalities in the 1980's - Lee Iacocca and Bob White.''
THAT popularity may propel Mr.
White beyond the labor movement. Last year, he confessed that, while he could not see himself in Parliament, he did see parallels between his career and that of Robert Hawke, the former labor leader now Australia's Prime Minister. ''I would love to become the Bob Hawke of Canada,'' he said at the time.
A charismatic man who immigrated from Northern Ireland when he was 13 and dropped out of school two years later to go to work, Mr. White has been an ardent unionist since his late teens.
But however ardent, his recent stands against concessions - and his willingness to strike when his counterparts in the United States were not - infuriated many U.A.W. leaders in Detroit. They appear pleased to be rid of Mr. White, although they are not happy to lose the Canadian division, which will reduce the U.A.W. to just over 1 million members - from 1.5 million as recently as 1979.
On March 30, the 350-member Canadian labor council of the U.A.W. unanimously approved the separation, which had been percolating in Mr. White's mind for several years. A convention is scheduled for September to draft a constitution for the union, which will be called the Canadian Auto Workers. The plan then comes before the U.A.W. convention in June 1986, but that is a formality: With the March 30 vote, the Canadian union, for all practical purposes, achieved independence in what both sides are calling a relatively amicable divorce.
''We are going to determine our own destiny,'' says Mr. White, whose union is the largest of the several Canadian unions that have seceded from United States unions. ''The accountability will be where it belongs, on our shoulders.''
For the auto companies the break may cause some difficulties. Under 20-year-old trade agreements between the United States and Canada, substantial quantities of parts and automobiles are made in each country for assembly in the other, and as a result, American companies cannot easily withdraw from Canada. But trade experts say that American companies are producing more in Canada and could withdraw some production. Still, Canadian production is attractive to Detroit because labor costs are substantially lower.
Mr. White is likely to press companies for improved wages and benefits. He says that because the Canadian dollar has lost so much ground against the United States currency, Canadian workers have earned as much as $7.50 an hour less than their southern counterparts.
The new union, according to Mr. White, will be independent, strong, and open to new ideas - and new members. ''Once we get the structure in place,'' he said, ''we'll begin to discuss mergers with other unions.'' The Canadian Air Line Employees Association, which has 4,500 members, has tentatively agreed to merge with the auto workers. He also talks of establishing a Canadian metal workers' federation to strengthen the power of Canadian industrial workers.
''We cannot ignore collective bargaining developments in the U.S.,'' Mr. White said. But, he added, his union will pursue independent bargaining goals. Profit sharing, for example, is anathema to Mr. White, who claims it ''makes people much too concerned about the enterprise they are working in, not the union and broader concerns of the day.''
FOR Mr. White, concerns about unionism date from his late teens. Born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, he moved to Canada with his family, which was seeking a new life in North America. They settled on a farm near Woodstock, Ontario, and to help out, the young teenager worked in nearby farmfields for $1 a day.
It took a truant officer to get him to school, but he soon felt out of place there and did poorly. At age 15, he obtained a permit to leave school and go to work. His father, by then, was employed at a local woodworking company, Hay & Company, whose workers had been organized by the United Automobile Workers.
The younger Mr. White, who took a woodworking job, was advised by his father not to become involved with the union. But a little more than a year later, he dropped by a union meeting and was elected a shop steward. He later became chairman of the plant bargaining committee, then chairman of the union's plant committee. By the time he turned 21, he had led his first strike - over pensions - which lasted 13 weeks.
Mr. White read voraciously and attended union education clases. When he was in his mid-20's, in what he came to view as a turning point in his life, he attended his first U.A.W. convention and became enamored of Walter P. Reuther, then U.A.W. president. ''Walter really took my mind out of the union as I had known it in the shop and put it on a much broader social plane: civil rights, political and international affairs,'' Mr. White says.
Within a year, Mr. White - at age 25 - became a full-time organizer for the union's Canadian committee in Toronto. In 1964, he led Canada's auto organizing efforts, and within five years, added 35,000 members. In 1978, he became the U.A.W.'s Canadian director - and soon began to show signs of independence from the United States union.
In 1979, an ailing Chrysler was seeking government and worker concessions. As part of the bailout organized by the United States Federal loan guarantee board, the U.A.W. was to make wage and benefit concessions. Douglas Fraser, then U.A.W. president, said the Candian Chrysler workers had to make concessions too. Although Mr. White argued that an agency of the American Government could not dictate contract terms to a Canadian union, some months later he became convinced that the company otherwise would go bankrupt and accepted the concessions.
Despite his disagreement, there was some thought at this time that Mr. White might run for president of the U.A.W. when Mr. Fraser retired in 1983. Even Mr. Fraser, in 1977 and 1980, suggested to Mr. White that he consider a run. But Mr. White refused. The U.A.W., he said, was so politically active that a Canadian would have to put in a long period in a top office in the United States before taking the top job.
Paul Schrade, a friend and former U.A.W. West Coast director, said Mr. White refused to run because it would have meant opposing ''the club,'' Mr. Schrade's term for the union leadership.
But Mr. White did continue to oppose ''the club's'' willingness to accept contract concessions. In December 1981, he was the only member of the 25-member U.A.W. executive board to vote against concessions at Ford and G.M., becoming a hero to many American union members who opposed concessions.
In 1982, he led a five-week strike at Chrysler that was opposed by union leaders in Detroit, and was successful: He won an increase of $1.15 an hour, and Chrysler made a similar settlement with its United States workers, giving them a 75-cent-an-hour wage raise, much more than the company had wanted to provide.
Two years later, the confrontation came at General Motors and he came away victorious again. He negotiated pay increases of 25 cents an hour in each year of a three-year contract, and refused lump-sum payments that would not become a permanent part of wages. Lump-sum payments had earlier been approved by the union in the United States.
LAST December, with the union's Canadian and American branches irritated with each other, Mr. White presented the union with demands he knew it would not accept: independent control over Canadian bargaining and strikes, plus guaranteed access to the strike fund. The U.A.W. executive board rejected the demands, 24 to 1. Mr. White cast the negative vote.
Although some Americans wanted to expel the Canadians, the two sides forged a separation agreement. The Canadian union will receive $36 million (Canadian) from the U.A.W., but the U.A.W. will deduct $3.7 million for buildings, equipment and liabilities. With this, the Canadians will have the capability to conduct an eight-week strike against G.M. if such a strike were necessary.
Mark L. Kahn, director of the master's degree industrial relations program at Wayne State University in Detroit, believes the American auto workers and the new Canadian union will establish polite relations. ''I don't mean close, warm and friendly, but good,'' he says. But he believes that the companies, before the next round of bargaining, will attempt to reduce their vulnerability to a Canadian strike by insuring that key production, or most of it, can be continued in the United States. ''Ultimately, it may not be in their long-run interests to have separated,'' Mr. Kahn says of the Canadians.
But Victor Reuther, the last of the three brothers who helped found the U.A.W., called the separation ''a normal, natural process.'' He believes the independent Canadian union will be more effective in Canada.
For all the uncertainty that now exists, Stanley J. Surma, a top American Ford negotiator, says that Mr. White is ''a very astute bargainer'' and is unlikely to press for unrealistic demands in any new contract talks. Unless Mr. White would do an ''180- degree turn, he's not going to behave that irrationally,'' Mr. Surma said.
For all the attention he receives and the time he spends traveling, Mr. White is something of a homebody. He and his second wife, Marilyne, live with their daughter, Robyn, 3, in a townhouse in a middle-class Toronto neighborhood. He often runs three miles a day, smokes an occasional cigar and rarely drinks. He retains close relations with two sons by a previous marriage.
He is active in Canada's peace movement and in politics, serving as a vice president of the liberal New Democratic Party. But, if anything, he says, the demands of running an independent union will mean less time for politics. ''I must have suicidal tendencies,'' he chuckles.
New York TimesU.A.W. REBEL: Bob White; A 'SUPERSTAR' FOR CANADIAN LABOR