Unifor picks GM to set pattern in contract bargaining

Michael Martinez, and Melissa Burden

The Canadian autoworkers union Unifor zeroed-in on General Motors Co. on Tuesday as the lead company to set a pattern for contract talks between the union and Detroit’s Big Three carmakers.

Unifor President Jerry Dias said he selected GM for the bargaining focus because it’s the company presenting the union with its biggest challenge in winning new investment. Dias has vowed to strike unless the union can negotiate new investment at key plants throughout Canada. Late last month, rank and file members overwhelmingly voted to authorize Unifor to strike if necessary.

“We are not under any circumstance going to sign any agreement with GM unless there is a firm commitment at St. Catharines and at Oshawa,” Dias said Tuesday. “That may be considered a line in the sand, so be it.”

Dias added: “If we’re going to have a dustup, we might as well have it immediately.”

Negotiations officially started last month and contracts expire at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 19. GM has said for two years that it wouldn’t announce any new investments or products for the Oshawa Assembly Plant until after negotiations end.

The company in a Tuesday statement said: “At GM Canada we remain focused on working with Unifor to reach a mutually beneficial and competitive new agreement.”

The stakes are particularly high in Oshawa, where the union is worried GM has plans to close the plant. There is no vehicle production slated at the facility beyond the 2019 model year. The Unifor Local 222 union and the community in Oshawa organized a “GM Oshawa Matters” campaign this summer, urging residents to send letters to government officials to keep GM in Oshawa.

Last year, Oshawa lost its third shift and about 1,000 jobs when GM moved production of the Chevrolet Camaro to Lansing.

The Oshawa plant employs about 2,400 hourly workers, including about 750 who build the Chevrolet Equinox on the one-shift Consolidated Line that GM has said is slated to close next year. A Flex Line builds the Chevy Impala, Buick Regal and Cadillac XTS on two shifts.

Dias said ultimately he believes GM will work with Unifor to come to an agreement, avoiding a strike. He said Tuesday that he doesn’t think there will be a strike, though it was a possibility.

Tony Faria, director of the office of automotive and vehicle research at the University of Windsor, said the GM selection was surprising given how far apart the two sides seem. He said the union has a good amount of leverage should it choose to strike.

“A strike by Unifor would affect GM rather quickly, and not just in Canada, but their U.S. operations as well,” Faria said.

If a strike were to shut down the St. Catharines transmission and engine plant, it would quickly force the CAMI Assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ontario to stop operating, and shortly after that would create problems for a number of GM’s U.S. plants.

GM’s St. Catharines Propulsion plant employs about 1,400 hourly workers who produce V-6 and V-8 engines and six-speed transmissions; they also produce machine-related components. The V-8s are used in the big-selling Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, as well as the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs. The V-6s are used in the Camaro, Chevy Impala, Chevy Traverse and Equinox; GMC Terrain and Acadia; Buick Enclave; and Cadillac CTS. The transmissions are used in the Equinox and Terrain built at the CAMI plant.

Unifor Local 222 president Colin James said Tuesday that his members in Oshawa — which include several supplier factories to the Oshawa Assembly Plant — are happy GM is the target company.

“Hopefully now that we have a deadline to work to, GM does come to the table,” James said. He said he hopes there is no strike but his members are prepared “to fight for their future.”

Oshawa employee Bill McKay of Whitby, Ontario, has worked for GM for 35 years. He said he doesn’t think negotiations will come down to a strike.

“Well, if they are going to close the plant and we go on strike, wouldn’t that be catering to them?” McKay said in July.

Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry, Labor & Economics Group at the Center for Automotive Research, said it will be tough for GM to agree to new investments in Oshawa.

“There are no segments or vehicle platforms that are just sitting out there waiting for a home,” she said. “There’s nothing in the product plan we can think of to go there. That’s a very difficult position to be in.”

In a news conference, Dias referenced the union’s 2012 negotiations strategy when Ford Motor Co. was the selected as the target, because the union felt that Ford posed the biggest challenge to ratifying a deal. Ultimately, Ford increased its investment at its Oakville plant and has added 2,200 jobs in Canada.

“We have our individual challenges with all three companies, but we chose GM because we feel that’s the best way to get all three companies in line with what our priorities are,” he said.

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

During a contract negotiation kickoff last month, Dias said the union and GM were “miles apart,” while talks with the other two automakers were “productive, constructive, respectful.”

Beyond investment decisions, Faria said most other bargaining issues won’t be contentious. He feels all three automakers are prepared to give workers a raise and are in a position to increase the pace at which new hires reach the top wage.

GM’s contract with Unifor covers about 3,860 hourly workers including 60 at a parts distribution center in Woodstock. It employs about 2,600 hourly workers at its CAMI assembly plant, but that plant is under a different contract that expires in 2017.

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

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