GM, Canadian auto union ‘miles apart’ as talks begin

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Toronto — The head of the Canadian auto workers union said it is “miles apart” from General Motors Co. on the first official day of contract negotiations.

The two sides are drawing hard lines in the sand over the fate of the beleaguered Oshawa Assembly Plant. GM says it won’t make any product commitments until negotiations are over. Unifor President Jerry Dias demands commitment before any potential contract is signed, and vowed to “do whatever’s necessary” to secure it — including a strike.

“There will not be an agreement with GM until we have solidified the output in Oshawa and we’ve secured engines for our St. Catharines’ facility,” Dias told reporters. “I’m not concerned. It’s not a question of if GM is going to make the investment, the question is when.”

The Detroit automaker, though, said it’s waiting until after a deal is signed to decide the fate of Oshawa’s 2,400 hourly workers.

“We’re focused on putting together a good, competitive case for Canada,” said Dave Paterson, vice president of corporate affairs for GM Canada. “There are no predetermined outcomes. Let’s stay on the ice and work together.”

The union president isn’t buying it.

“We believe GM was not transparent with us seven years ago or four years ago,” Dias said. “For GM to insist they’ll make the decision after we complete bargaining and we’re to cross our fingers and hope they invest, it’s not going to happen. It’s not a threat, it’s a straightforward comment on where these negotiations are going.”

Dias cited a $5.4 billion investment GM announced before contract talks with the UAW last fall. “If GM in 2015 could commit ... then we are absolutely expecting they are going to do that in Canada,” he said.

Both sides described Wednesday’s negotiation kickoff as positive, and Paterson said the two groups discussed economics, technology and anxiety over Oshawa. In a brief portion of the kickoff event open to media, a number of Unifor union officials wearing “#GMOshawaMatters” T-shirts sat at a long conference table around Dias and across the table from GM officials. Unifor was created in 2013 by the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions

Dias described Wednesday’s talks as ceremonial, saying the union gave GM its proposals and the two sides are “miles apart.”

“There’s no doubt we will have our disagreements within the next few weeks,” he said, calling the talks the most important in a generation. “I’m very optimistic a fair contract can be reached with all three of the Detroit Three.”

Contracts expire at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 19. Dias said the sides will talk for about a week, then take a week-long break as the union gathers for a convention in Ottawa.

Beyond Oshawa, Unifor is hoping to secure investments at Ford Motor Co.’s Windsor Engine Plant and Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s Brampton Assembly Plant. Unifor covers about 23,050 workers between the three automakers, although about 2,700 are on a separate contract that doesn’t expire until next year.

“If we walk out of 2016 without commitments for Oshawa, Brampton and Windsor, we are looking at the death of the auto industry in Canada,” Dias said. “The auto industry is not going to die in Canada. It’s first going to be stabilized and then built as a result of 2016 negotiations.”

Beyond plant investments, Dias said the union intends to secure wage increases for its workers, convert temporary workers to permanent positions and secure benefits for retirees.

He said the union has an excellent relationship with the automakers, but “we’re well beyond the point where handshakes and a good relationship is good enough.”

Dias said the union is working well with the new liberal government, as opposed to the “total disaster” of the previous conservative administration. The government is crucial, he said, to securing new investments based on the incentives it offers the automakers.

GM on Wednesday echoed that sentiment, saying they’re working with partners including the government on potential future investment.

“We are proud of the experience, quality and productivity of our Canadian workforce,” GM said in a statement. “These negotiations are an important first hurdle in building a business case for future investments in Canada.”

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Former FCA negotiator joins GM team

General Motors Co. earlier this year added the former top labor negotiator at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to its bargaining team. Al Iacobelli abruptly retired from FCA ahead of contract negotiations with the UAW last June.

GM hired him in January as its executive director of labor relations. He reports to Cathy Clegg, the automaker’s North American manufacturing and labor relations vice president. GM hired Iacobelli to help lead Canadian negotiations, though much of his work is done behind the scenes. Iacobelli declined to comment on his new job.

Michael Martinez