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Unifor indicates progress ahead of GM strike deadline

Michael Martinez, and Melissa Burden

Toronto — Thousands of workers at General Motors Co.’s Canada plants were unsure of their fate late Monday night, as the company and auto workers union continued to negotiate a contract deal in the final hours before an 11:59 p.m. deadline.

Progress was being made at the bargaining table in Toronto, but work remained on key topics like product investment, a Unifor union spokeswoman said at press time. At plants in Oshawa, St. Catharines and Woodstock, workers were stacking up picket signs for what could be the first work stoppage for a Detroit automaker in Canada since the mid-1990s.

“You can see the worried faces,” said Don Scott, a 47-year-old Oshawa employee who left his day shift at 2:30 p.m. not knowing if he’d come in to work the next day. “It’s not a money thing; it’s a survival thing. If we don’t get new product we’re done.”

Scott described the mood in the plant Monday as “careful optimism,” but said workers were prepared for anything.

“We’re ready to walk if need be,” he said.

The union has demanded new vehicles and investment for Oshawa and St. Catharines before it would sign a deal, but GM has said it would not make any investment decisions until negotiations were over. Unifor President Jerry Dias has said he wouldn’t extend the Monday deadline.

It was not clear if any of the talks had progressed on the union’s demands at the two Toronto-region plants. The Globe and Mail newspaper reported Monday afternoon that Dias said he believed the union would get a settlement with GM. He said the union was having “incredibly constructive conversations about contentious issues” with GM. He told the Globe and Mail earlier Monday that it had no agreement for new vehicles for Oshawa.

“There are a number of key issues that are still outstanding at the negotiations table,” Denise Hammond, a Unifor spokeswoman, said at 8 p.m. “Our bargaining committee remains hopeful that we’ll have a deal in the next four hours.”

Scott said co-workers have watched Twitter and Facebook for union updates as the strike deadline neared. He said he feels lucky because his wife has a steady job, but admitted the potential of the plant not getting new vehicles — and ultimately closing — is nerve-wracking.

“If this doesn’t work out I’m on the street like everyone else looking for a job,” he said.

Workers at St. Catharines engine and transmission plant were also waiting to find out of they would walk off the line following the 11:59 p.m. deadline.

“We’ve made all the necessary preparations,” said Mark Roy, vice president of Unifor 199, which represents St. Catharines workers. “Until then it’s business as usual.”

A strike would send 3,860 GM hourly workers from Oshawa, St. Catharines and a parts distribution center in Woodstock to the picket lines, which analysts say eventually could hamper production at GM’s U.S. plants.

The work stoppage at the St. Catharines quickly could force GM’s CAMI Assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, to slow or halt operations, and shortly thereafter could create problems for a number of GM’s U.S. plants, analysts say.

CAMI, which builds the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain crossovers, has a separate agreement with the union that expires in 2017, which means they would remain on the job if there’s a strike at the other plants. But the local Unifor union representing CAMI workers said workers would not accept engines or other replacement parts GM may try to send if St. Catharines shuts down.

St. Catharines employs about 1,400 hourly workers who produce V-6 and V-8 engines, six-speed transmissions and other components. The V-8s are used in the hot-selling Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups built at GM’s Fort Wayne Assembly Plant in Indiana and in Mexico. They also power the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon built at GM’s Arlington Assembly Plant in Texas, as well as vehicles at Lansing Grand River Assembly.

The V-6s are sent to GM’s Wentzville Assembly Plant, which builds the popular Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon midsize pickups; V-6 engines also go to GM’s Lansing Grand River, Lansing Delta Township, GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck, Oshawa and CAMI assembly plants. Some vehicles the engines go into also include the Chevrolet Camaro, Chevy Impala, Chevy Traverse and Equinox, Terrain, GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave and Cadillac CTS. Transmissions go to CAMI and Oshawa.

Analysts believe GM likely has multiple plants providing the same engines and transmissions as St. Catharines, so it’s unclear what the immediate impact of a strike would be.

Some 2,400 hourly workers would halt production at the Oshawa plant, which builds the Equinox, Buick Regal, Cadillac XTS and Impala. Oshawa The plant is slated to lose a shift of workers on one line next year and its last product is scheduled to end with the 2019 model year.