Investment top priority for Canadian auto workers union

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

New investments in Canadian auto plants will be the top priority for Unifor when it enters into collective bargaining with Detroit automakers this summer.

The Canadian union Wednesday night said the 120 delegates of its Auto Council voted unanimously to make new investments, including new product allocations and specific investment mandates for assembly and powertrain operations, the highest priority of the upcoming talks with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. The current contracts expire in September.

“When we get into bargaining, the No. 1 priority will be maintaining and expanding the footprint of the industry in Canada,” said Chris Taylor, chair of the Auto Council and President of Local 200 at the Ford engine plant in Windsor, in a statement.

Some Canadian auto plants have not received major investments from the Detroit Three automakers in years, raising concerns about the future of the plants.

Most recently, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne raised eyebrows at the company’s Brampton Assembly Plant by saying another Ontario facility in Windsor that produces minivans could produce the Chrysler 300. He gave no commitment to shift production.

The Brampton plant, which last publicly received a major investment in 2011, also builds the Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger. It employs about 3,450 on two shifts.

“Brampton needs a considerable investment,” said AutoForecast Solutions LLC President and CEO Joe McCabe. “If you look at Fiat Chrysler now, they’re getting out of the car business.”

Marchionne earlier this year announced a strategy to shift its North American production footprint away from cars to utility vehicles such as pickups, SUVs and crossovers. He has addressed the changes to car production in the United States but not Canada.

The Brampton facility, McCabe said, is expected to be one major bargaining chip during this year’s negotiations. Another, he said, is GM’s Oshawa Assembly, which remains on “life support” after losing production of the Chevrolet Camaro in 2015.

“We believe both Brampton and Windsor will be underutilized unless they put more products in those facilities,” he said. “Oshawa is the one we see being on the bubble.”

McCabe said every vehicle GM builds in Canada could be built elsewhere in North America. Oshawa’s one-shift consolidated line builds the Equinox and Chevrolet Impala Limited, a fleet vehicle. It has been slated to close several times in the past but has been extended by demand for vehicles. A two-shift flex line at the facility builds the Buick Regal, Chevy Impala and Cadillac XTS.

Unifor National President Jerry Dias said other top priorities include “achieving improvements in other key areas such as wages, new hire provisions and more.”

“The auto industry pays huge benefits to our communities, in terms of spinoff jobs, the wages our members spend in their local communities and the taxes they pay that support schools, hospitals and more,” he said in a statement.

The priorities were set following workers from locals representing each of the Detroit Three companies meeting to discuss their main concerns.

Unifor’s priorities for bargaining differ from those of its American counterpart. During 2015 contract negotiations with the Detroit automakers, the United Auto Workers’ top priorities included closing pay gaps between entry-level and veteran workers as well as raising wages for all.

The UAW, following contentious contract talks and voting, gained across-the-board pay wages as well as $16 billion in new investments over the course of the four-year deals.

During the last round of contract talks, Canadian union officials agreed to extend a progressive two-tier pay system and gave up guaranteed annual wage increases, while the three automakers agreed to pay their Canadian hourly workers a $3,000 (Canadian) ratification bonus and provide a $2,000 (Canadian) “lump sum cost-of-living improvement” payments annually for the rest of the four-year contract. They also included a hybrid pension system for new hires in which both automakers and union members will make payments. There will be no change in pension plans for active members.

Unifor was formed by the Canadian Auto Workers merging with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union in 2013. It represents more than 310,000 members across the country.

The CAW was the Canadian arm of the UAW until 1985. The Canadian union broke from the American-based union following cross-border differences in priorities during collective bargaining and other issues.

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