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Canadian auto workers authorize potential strikes

Michael Martinez, and Melissa Burden
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Canadian auto workers at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. on Sunday have authorized the union to strike Detroit’s Big Three if necessary.

Workers at GM voted 97.1 percent in favor of strike action; Ford workers voted 98.9 percent in favor; and at Fiat Chrysler workers voted 99.0 percent in favor, the union said in a release, setting up the potential for contentious bargaining. Bargaining began this month.

The strike authorization vote is largely procedural and often passes by wide margins, but Sunday’s vote reaffirms the union’s seriousness about winning new investment at plants across Canada. Unifor President Jerry Dias has vowed there will be no deal without guarantees from Ford, GM and FCA to bring new product and jobs to a number of plants at risk of closing.

“With this clear mandate our members have demonstrated they are in full support of their bargaining committees, and our direction in this set of negotiations,” Dias said in a statement. “The push for new investments in Canada got a lot stronger today.”

Contracts with the Big Three are set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 19. Unifor is set to announce its target company, with which it will focus talks with, on Sept. 6.

Unifor has said its top bargaining priority is to secure product and investments for its facilities in Canada and has said without them, it will go on strike. The stakes are particularly high in Oshawa, where the union is worried GM has plans to close the plant. GM has said it won’t make any product and/or investment announcements for Oshawa until after negotiations because it needs to know labor costs. There is no vehicle production slated at the facility beyond the 2019 model year.

Unifor also wants to secure investments at Ford’s Windsor Engine Plant and FCA’s Brampton Assembly Plant.

Oshawa Assembly union rep Jim Wheeler of Bowmanville, Ontario, has worked for GM for 31 years. His son Andrew also works in the plant. Jim Wheeler said if no new product is secured, he would support a strike. He worked at the plant in 1996 when workers went on strike.

“Solidarity gets ramped up for the first little bit but it’s hard on families, it’s hard on people to be on strike,” he said in an interview in July in Oshawa. “But we do have a little bit of leverage still. We have products that they want even through they’re building out. We still have the Equinox that they sell every single one of them. We have an engine plant in St. Catharines that would go on strike with us. They supply a lot of engines to the States.”

The Oshawa plant went on strike for about three weeks in 1996 over mandatory overtime, said Colin James, president of Unifor Local 222, which represents plant employees and employees of many suppliers.

“This time, we’re talking no product, no contract,” James told The Detroit News in late July. “And it’s just the uncertainty. We believe GM’s making record profits, there’s no reason whatsoever they cannot provide future work for our members that have sacrificed so much.”

The Oshawa plant hourly employment has fallen from 11,000 in 2005 to 2,400 today. Last year, GM moved Chevrolet Camaro production from the plant to GM’s Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant. About 1,000 jobs were lost through buyouts of more seasoned workers.

Workers now build the Chevrolet Equinox on the one-shift Consolidated Line that employs 750 and is slated to end production sometime in 2017. The Buick Regal, Cadillac XTS and Chevrolet Impala are built on a two-shift Flex Line.

Negotiations with the automakers began earlier this month in Toronto. Unifor members would receive strike pay of $250 a week in a walkout.

FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne, speaking to reporters Friday in Sterling Heights at a plant event, would not say if there is investment slated for Brampton. He said all plants require investments and some are not product-related. He said the longevity of Brampton’s paint shop is a question as it would require “significant investments” to “make that competitive.”

Marchionne mentioned how FCA did not have government financial support for its investment at the Windsor Assembly Plant but made the investment anyway. He questioned political intervention into car companies investments.

“We ended up making it on the basis of the viability of the plant as a standalone entity,” he said. “I make no comment about what the requirements are for Brampton going forward. The other two automakers from Detroit in Canada have similar issues. I think Unifor has to decide what strategy it will use. I mean, we will do what’s required.”

Brampton Assembly employs about 3,300 hourly workers who build the Dodge Charger, Dodge Challenger and Chrysler 300. Marchionne has opted to end production of cars in the U.S. and previously has said the 300 could be built at the Windsor Assembly Plant, though no plans for that have been announced.

Unifor was created in 2013 when the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions merged.


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