FCA's Windsor Assembly Plant, Ford looking to restart this May as union works to ensure safety

As automakers look to restart the industry, union representatives are looking to ensure safety is the number one priority for workers.

Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, said factories will look very different once reopened

Automakers are hoping to be back online this month, and unions seem to be on-board as both have worked to ensure worker safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

Detroit automakers are looking at getting operations restarted after being down due to COVID-19 for the past two months.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has targeted May 18 for its U.S. operations and May 19 for their Canadian plants, including the Windsor Assembly Plant. Ford and GM are also looking to restart on May 19 in Canada — with Ford in Windsor looking to produce about one million masks for health-care workers per month for a period of one year. 

Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor — the union that represents many of the auto workers — said safety is the number one priority, and not the amount of time it takes to get these plants back online. 

"I understand why people would be nervous, we have never seen anything like this," he said. "It's been a long couple months to say the least ... This has been an incredibly tough time for everybody."

Dias said the union has been working with all of its employers to ensure that safety is the priority for workers, and wants them to know that these start dates are "tentative" for now. 

"We've have been working hand-in-hand with our various employers for months ... But that in itself is not going to eliminate their concerns," he said. 

He said one thing is for sure — the plants will look very different when people do return to their jobs. 

New safety features include a pre-screening area where temperatures will be taken before workers enter the plant, an app monitoring workers' health, leaders to ensure physical distancing standards are met, cleaning, disinfecting especially in high-touch areas, mandatory masks, lines on the floor directing traffic, and staggered breaks and lunches with limited seating. 

Dias said local Unifor leadership for the Windsor Assembly Plant are still working on the shift structure for reopening. 

"It's about shift, the length of shifts, whether or not we bring back one shift or have all three come on in four-hour intervals... those are ongoing discussions," he said. 

"We have to make sure we're going to be one hundred per cent comfortable. We're being extra cautious to say the least" 

On Thursday, Windsor's Unifor leaders said the start-up planned for after the holiday weekend would be a partial one.

The union said there is enough personal protective equipment for workers when they come back.

"I had a two-hour discussion with the vice-presidents of Ford Motor Company. They have put a tonne of work in making sure that we have everything in place to try and keep our workers as safe as possible," said John D'Agnolo, president of Local 200, which represents workers at Ford's engine factories.

Benefits for auto workers

Meanwhile, Windsor West NDP MP Brian Masse and Unifor Locals 200 and 444 announced on Thursday they are putting pressure on the federal government to ensure auto workers receive benefits they are entitled to. 

They say laid off auto workers who are receiving the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit aren't able to receive an additional benefit the union has bargained for, and they want to see that change.

The benefit in question is called the Supplemental Unemployment Benefit that was a negotiated part of their collective agreement and it's something they would be able to receive if they were receiving Employment Insurance.

It allows workers to top their income up to 65 per cent of their regular earnings while laid off, but some aren't able to do so right now.

Masse said this is affecting tens of thousands of workers and the union said calls for the federal government to make the change to allow the benefit to be paid out have gone unanswered for six weeks.

They say the whole thing wouldn't cost the federal government a penny and could be solved with one signature.