Canada's Unifor kicks off contract talks with Detroit Three automakers

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit's three automakers kicked off contract talks Wednesday with Unifor, Canada's autoworker union, and its leaders pledged to fight for job-saving product allocation.

General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV operate just four assembly plants between them in Canada after GM transitioned its Oshawa Assembly to a stamping facility. But Unifor's fight for new vehicles to build likely will be difficult during a global pandemic, coming a year after the United Auto Workers secured nearly $20 billion in investment for American auto plants over its four-year pacts with the automakers

GM workers in the Unifor labor union in Canada voted to approve a contract.

"Going after product is going to be the key thing," said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research. "That's really made much more difficult by going to the table the year after the UAW does because of where you are in the product cycle. If the UAW comes and makes very attractive agreements that can suck up products last year, then what did the automakers hold back to allocate to Canada?"

But Canada, Unifor President Jerry Dias said during a news conference Wednesday, is "an incredibly important market" for the automakers. And he expects there's product in their portfolios for Canada. 

The union intends to fight for investment despite a COVID-19 pandemic that has cost the companies billions in potential revenue. The automakers lost 8 weeks of North American production, but Unifor still aims to push for wage increases and reducing the 10-year grow-in period that it takes for a Canadian autoworker to make top wages. 

"This is an industry that has been printing money for the last decade and I'm not going to allow COVID to be an excuse for somehow not giving our members the increases that they deserve," Dias said.

Unifor's contract, which expires at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 21, covers 17,000 autoworkers, 3,600 fewer workers from contract negotiations in 2016 — a result of the Detroit Three cutting back production in Canada.

"As we kick off negotiations here with The Detroit Three, we have serious, serious challenges in all operations," Dias said. Ford has not announced a new program for its Oakville plant; the union need's a "major" investment at FCA's Brampton plant; and two vehicles would need to be added at FCA's Windsor Assembly to recall the third shift there.

With GM, the union is concerned about two power train programs expiring at the St. Catharines plant. And the "elephant in the room" is GM's sprawling Oshawa facility: Unifor previously agreed to make a stamping and sub-assembly plant instead of allowing the automaker to completely shut it down, saving 300 of 2,600 jobs.

"We need a product now," Dias said. "The solution for Oshawa may very well be an electric vehicle in the long term, but frankly we need something today whether or not it's an SUV or pickup truck. We certainly need something today to restart the assembly line and get people back to work."

Production at the Oshawa facility ended in December 2019, and it's now transitioned into a stamping facility. Part of the property will be converted to support testing of self-driving vehicles.

While fighting GM to keep some aspect of the Oshawa plant alive, Unifor also had to negotiate with Fiat Chrysler, which cut the third shift at the Windsor Assembly Plant after it ended production of the Dodge Grand Caravan minivan. The move eliminated about 1,500 jobs. 

“FCA remains committed to Canada and we look forward to negotiating a fair agreement that will help us continue to invest in our future, while creating opportunities for our employees, their families and our communities,” Jacqueline Oliva, FCA Canada's head of human resources, said in a statement.

“We have the largest hourly workforce and, in 2019, FCA Canada produced the most vehicles of the domestic three automakers. As the automotive industry continues to rapidly change, our goal in this round of negotiations is to reach a labor agreement that will sustain the company’s competitiveness.” 

Meanwhile, the future of Ford's only assembly plant in Canada is at risk with the automaker reportedly considering stopping production of the Edge SUV after the current generation model expires in 2023.

"Ford of Canada and Unifor must work collaboratively to ensure we remain operationally competitive amidst intense global competition," Rose Pao, communications manager for Ford Canada, said in a statement. "We’ll be asking our employees to work with us to help shape this new reality together."

Unifor told Ford that "unless there was a solution for Oakville there was not going to be a settlement," Dias said. 

The autoworkers covered by the agreement include 1,600 hourly employees at GM Canada’s St. Catharines Propulsion Plant, Oshawa Stamped Products and Service Operations and a parts distribution center in Ontario; 5,370 employees Ford's Oakville Assembly Plant, Essex Engine Plant, Windsor Engine plant and parts supply plants; 8,444 at FCA's Windsor Assembly, Brampton Assembly and stamping facility and at the Etobicoke Casting Plant.

GM's only assembly plant in Canada, CAMI, is covered by a different agreement with Unifor that expires next year. 

In this set of negotiations, the Detroit automaker will focus on flexibility in the work rules at its facilities. In the 2016 negotiations, GM was the lead company in the pattern bargaining process. GM workers in Canada ratified a four-year contract with 65% of members voting in favor of the agreement that included 2% wage increases then and in 2019, a CA$6,000 signing bonus and $554 million in plant investments.

“GM Canada looks forward to contract negotiations with Unifor,” Matt Hough, general director, human resources and labor relations, said in a statement. “Our focus is to reach a new fair, flexible four-year agreement for the 1,600 represented employees at our St. Catharines Propulsion Plant, the new Oshawa OEM Stamped Products and Service Operations and the Woodstock Parts Distribution Centre.”

Unifor will pick a lead company to negotiate with first on the Labor Day holiday Sept. 7.   

Staff writers Breana Noble and Jordyn Grzelewkski contributed