Unifor, UAW turn up the heat on GM

Nora Naughton Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Workers gather for a vigil outside GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant on Thursday.

The unions representing U.S. and Canadian auto workers are intensifying their public campaign to keep open five General Motors Co. plants in North America.

As Canadian trade union Unifor argued its case Thursday at GM's Renaissance Center headquarters to keep open the automaker’s Oshawa Assembly Plant in Ontario, the United Auto Workers organized a vigil at the endangered Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant.

Unifor National President Jerry Dias said the conversation with GM was "frustrating," but says the Detroit automaker did not "unilaterally shut the door." Dias said the automaker has promised to consider Unifor's concerns and come back with any decisions by Jan. 7.

"The simple reality is we need to find a solution," Dias said in a press conference in Windsor following his meeting with GM. Unifor's "campaign will escalate, it will not die down."

Meantime, several dozen UAW workers stood outside in the rain and cold for a vigil at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, which will wind down production entirely by June 1, affecting some 1,350 union-represented workers at the plant. Workers at Detroit-Hamtramck build the Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac CT6, Chevrolet Impala and plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt, all of which will permanently cease production next year.

A unity choir sings as workers gather for a vigil outside GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant on Thursday.

"They're playing with words," Frank Stuglin, UAW Region 1 director, told members of the media. "What that means, we'll find out when we sit at the table. We're going to fight to get product here."

Unifor's summit with GM leaders comes as the union took out four-page ads in The Detroit News and Free Press to chastise the automaker for manufacturing in Mexico at the same time it readies to idle one plant in Canada and four plants plants in the U.S. next year.

Unifor amped up efforts to keep Oshawa Assembly running last week with the launch of a social media campaign hashtagged #SaveOshawaGM. The union also released a television ad Thursday titled "Betrayal" as part of that campaign.

Dias held up the front-page wraparound ad during a press conference after his meeting with GM and said it was a message for the automaker and for workers in the U.S.

"The problem isn’t with the American auto worker," Dias said. "We are standing here with American auto workers that are going to be impacted, and we are here to stand hand in hand with our sisters and brothers who work for GM in the U.S."

Workers at Oshawa build the Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac XTS, which will be discontinued when production of those vehicles stops at the end of 2019. GM has not yet allocated new product to the plant, which is also winding down production of previous-generation Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups.

Unifor has asked GM to consider continuing production of the older trucks while it looks for a longer-term option.

"The GM restructuring decisions are extremely difficult for Oshawa, but we believe the best approach is to work together to support our employees including support for local training and transition initiatives in the Durham Region," GM said in an emailed statement following the Thursday meeting with Unifor. "We had constructive discussions with Unifor in Detroit today and agreed to keep in touch with their leadership."

Oshawa and Detroit-Hamtramck are among the five plants in the U.S. and Canada that GM said it will idle next year as part of a sweeping restructuring of its manufacturing operations and workforce. GM will also cut some 8,000 white-collar jobs by leveraging about 6,000 layoffs. The other U.S. plants include Warren Transmission, Baltimore Operations in Maryland and the Lordstown Complex in northeast Ohio.

Lordstown, which builds the soon-to-be-discontinued Chevrolet Cruze, has become the object of Tesla CEO Elon Musk's desire after he told Lesley Stahl of CBS's "60 Minutes" that he may be interested in using Lordstown as his electric car company looks to grow.

GM's Lordstown plant is not currently for sale. Union representation at the facility poses a problem for Musk, who has fended off UAW-organizing efforts at Tesla's only assembly plant in Fremont, Calif. But Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said in a report Thursday that he sees a potential for Tesla in Lordstown after Ohio Gov. John Kasich tweeted "call me" at Musk with a clip of "60 Minutes."

Renee Dixon, a line worker at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant, talks outside the plant Thursday about her uncertain future.

"We merely ask investors to play out a scenario where Elon Musk potentially makes an offer to save the Lordstown plant (saving thousands of jobs in the Lordstown/Youngstown region) that is slated to be shut down over a dispute about EV incentives and labor union negotiations," Jonas wrote. "In our opinion, given the parties involved in this story ... we think there is a distinct possibility that the event path could evolve into something with greater significance for the stocks involved."

The Detroit automaker said last week it would be able to offer new positions to roughly 2,700 of the 2,800 active U.S. hourly employees affected by the plant idlings. For Canadian workers, GM says it is working with dealers, local colleges and other employers to train and help secure jobs for impacted workers.

But Detroit-Hamtramck worker and Roseville resident Renee Dixon, 38, says moving to another GM plant is not likely an option for her. The single mother of two children has worked at the Detroit plant for only three years.

"It hurts for me," she said as choked up with tears. "This is my family. The hardest part is not for myself, but for everybody else who works here. Some of these people have worked here for so long."


Twitter: @NoraNaughton