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Canada's Unifor picks Ford as lead in Detroit Three contract talks

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ford Motor Co. of Canada has been selected as the lead company with which the Unifor labor union will bargain as they negotiate with Detroit's three automakers on new contracts.

Unifor will bargain with Ford to establish a pattern for the four-year contracts that expire at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 21. The union on Tuesday selected Ford out of Detroit's automakers because leaders felt the most pressing issue was the future of Ford's Oakville Assembly Complex southwest of Toronto. Reports have indicated it could lose its last remaining product in the coming years. 

Unifor national president Jerry Dias.

"The Ford Edge is expected to roll off the assembly line sometime in 2023 and we have not gotten a firm commitment yet from Ford," Unifor President Jerry Dias said during a news conference Tuesday. "The bottom line is, the group that I think is the most vulnerable are our members in Oakville, and they deserve the right to determine their own fate."

In a statement, Ryan Kantautas, vice president of human resources for Ford Motor Co. of Canada, said: "Ford of Canada has a long history of working collaboratively with Unifor and looks forward to reaching a collective agreement in order to remain operationally competitive amidst intense global competition. In light of global economic uncertainties, it’s more important than ever to maintain jobs in Canada. We’ll be asking our employees to work with us to help shape this new reality."

Contract talks between Unifor and Detroit's automakers began in August. The negotiations come after the United Auto Workers last year secured some $20 billion in investments for U.S. auto plants by Ford, General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Industry experts have said the timing of Canadian negotiations, on the heels of the U.S. commitments and amid a global pandemic, could be challenging for Unifor.

Dias noted the challenging timeline in explaining why Unifor is seeking to secure a three-year agreement rather than a four-year one. That would make it so that, next time around, Unifor is not looking for investments from Detroit's automakers after they've made commitments to the UAW. Instead, the two unions would be in talks at the same time.

"It's always hard to go second," Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research, told The Detroit News. "They still have the products they've got to build, but going the year after the UAW, they're basically eating the leftovers of what's changed since then or what was set aside thinking it might go to Canada. Eating at the table at the same time as the UAW would be preferable."

Plus, she said, a shorter contract cycle could be advantageous to Unifor so it doesn't lock in terms that will be negotiated as the automakers recover from the billions in losses they accrued due to pandemic-related production shutdowns: "Three years out, we should be in better economic conditions, and you wouldn’t want to be living with a recession-era contract in that period."

Dias characterized the fight for Canada's auto jobs as a challenging but critical one, amid recent closures of facilities in Canada by Detroit's automakers and as Canada has fallen behind other countries in auto manufacturing. The union has also pressed the Canadian government to come up with a national strategy for the industry.

"We are lagging behind, desperately, as a nation," said Dias. "Back in 1999, Canada was No. 4 in the world in manufacturing vehicles. We built over 3 million vehicles. In 2019, we built 1.9 million. This year, we will be building much less. We went from No. 4 in the world to No. 12."

Crucial to securing future auto jobs, he said, will be winning commitments on electric-vehicle development, as all three Detroit automakers shift their lineups to reflect the electric- and autonomous-vehicle technologies that are reshaping the global auto industry.

"What is of dire concern to us is that, to date, more than $300 billion has been announced in global electric-vehicle technology production announcements," said Dias. "So far not one penny has been committed here in Canada. That has to change. This set of negotiations is about changing and adapting and ensuring we have a footprint for the long term."

Collectively, the Detroit Three now operate just four assembly plants in Canada. Unifor's current contracts cover 17,000 workers  — some 3,600 fewer workers than they did four years ago, due to cuts by the U.S. automakers.

One of Unifor's priorities will be securing a plan for GM's Oshawa plant northeast of Toronto, which the automaker transitioned from an assembly plant to a stamping facility. The agreement to change the plant's use rather than closing it saved 300 of 2,600 jobs.

The union is also looking for investments in GM's St. Catharines plant near Niagara Falls, where two powertrain programs are expiring.

Unifor will seek new investments by FCA — which has the largest Canadian workforce of the Detroit Three — at the automaker's Windsor plant and the Brampton plant near Toronto. The union will push for at least one new product commitment for Windsor, in order to restore the third shift there; the automaker cut that shift after ending production of the Dodge Grand Caravan minivan, resulting in 1,500 job losses.

At Ford's Oakville plant, reports from an automotive forecaster and Unifor indicate the future of the Edge crossover SUV is in question after the model expires in 2023.

Pensions, wages and benefits will also be up for discussion, Dias said: "Our priorities are clearly product, security, the term of the agreement, and of course general economics."

Unifor represents 6,300 workers at Ford, 9,000 workers at Fiat Chrysler and 4,100 at GM, according to the union.

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

Staff Writer Kalea Hall contributed.