Union head: Canadian auto workers will strike if needed

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

The fate of the Canadian auto industry and its tens of thousands of jobs is at stake this summer as Unifor enters contract negotiations with the Detroit automakers, according to union leader Jerry Dias.

Unlike its United Auto Workers counterpart in the United States, Unifor’s main issue during the negotiations won’t be increasing wages, it will be keeping plants open. Still, Dias said, the union will strike, if necessary.

“The reality is if we don’t solidify the footprint, there’s going to be strikes in Canada,” Dias told The Detroit News during a recent phone interview. “There’s no way around it. I don’t have any choice. The way we look at it, we have nothing to lose.”

General Motors Co.’s Oshawa Assembly and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Brampton Assembly are Dias’ two largest concerns, as both have not been promised new products. He also has “major concerns” about Ford Motor Co.’s engine operations in Windsor.

Unifor, formerly the Canadian Auto Workers, faces an uphill battle when it enters talks in August for 23,000 members at Fiat Chrysler, GM and Ford.

Canada’s auto industry has been on a decline in recent years due to automakers investing in places such as Mexico with lower labor costs and public officials refusing to offer incentives for investments by automakers.

“A lot is at stake in 2016,” he said. “I will even make the argument that we really are talking about the future of the auto industry in Canada.”

According to the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, auto manufacturing jobs have declined 8.2 percent from 2008, to 104,500 last year.

Dias said he will not sign any contracts that don’t cement Canada’s production footprint, and bring new investments and jobs.

“The facts are, if you go through the last eight years, Mexico has opened eight assembly plants and Canada’s lost two,” Dias said. “It’s clear to us that if the Detroit Three do not invest in Canada in this round, we will end up with more closures.”

Oshawa, Dias said, is the top priority because without a new product, he believes the facility will be shuttered, leaving about 2,500 employees without work.

“I am absolutely convinced that if we do not have a product for Oshawa, we are going to have a plant closure,” he said.

GM CEO Mary Barra told reporters Tuesday in Detroit ahead of the company’s annual stockholders meeting that the automaker is having “very constructive conversations with Unifor.”

“I don’t have anything to change on the statements that we’ve already made about any of the facilities in Canada,” Barra said. “And we’re going to go into and continue to have productive dialogue throughout the summer there, understanding what Unifor and their requests are, also looking at again balancing our portfolio and our footprint.”

AutoForecast Solutions LLC President and CEO Joe McCabe describes the facility as being on “life support” after GM moved Chevrolet Camaro production to Lansing in 2015.

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.

One good sign for the plant is GM on Friday is expected to announce it will hire up to 1,000 engineers for its Canadian Engineering Centre in Oshawa, according to multiple media reports. The company last year announced it would hire more than 100 software and controls engineers as it created a hub at the center for “connected car” and green technologies.

Fiat Chrysler’s assembly plant in Brampton is not on life support, but its future is in limbo.

CEO Sergio Marchionne raised eyebrows in Brampton by saying Windsor Assembly, which produces minivans, could produce the Chrysler 300. He gave no commitment to shift production.

Dias said he doesn’t view “Marchionne’s comments as somehow threatening our members in Brampton,” saying all automakers are increasing the use of flexible assembly lines capable of building multiple vehicles.

Marchionne earlier this year announced a strategy to shift its North American production footprint 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.

Along with the 300, Brampton builds the Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger. It employs about 3,450 on two shifts.

Fiat Chrysler invested an undisclosed amount when all three vehicles were redesigned for the 2015 model year. Prior to that, the facility’s last public investment was $20 million in 2011.

An ally Unifor believes it has in this round of negotiations that it hasn’t had since at least 2006 is the Canadian government.

Canadians elected a Liberal government in November, ousting the Conservatives that were not supportive of providing incentives for financial investments by automakers.

Dias said the union has had “unprecedented access” to new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office that has resulted in “meaningful discussions.”

In the past four years, each of the Detroit automakers squabbled with the previous government.

“I believe that the federal Liberal government has a much better understanding of what needs to be done,” he said.