Unifor president says Big 3 automaker negotiations 'about working class people' amid COVID-19 concerns

Union representatives began negotiations with the Canadian counterparts of the Detroit Big Three automakers with a "document exchange" on Wednesday morning, skipping the ceremonial handshake as a COVID-19 precaution. 

Existing agreements for some 20,000 Canadian workers expire on Sept. 21

Jerry Dias, president of the Unifor union representing 20,000 Canadian autoworkers, sits opposite Jacqueline Oliva, head of human resources for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) Canada at the start of formal contract talks with the Detroit Three automakers, Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, in Toronto, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Union representatives began negotiations with the Canadian counterparts of the Detroit Big Three automakers with a "document exchange" on Wednesday morning, skipping the ceremonial handshake as a COVID-19 precaution. 

The official negotiation of wages and benefits began today in Toronto, which eventual outcomes will affect employees for the next four years. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the employment landscape will be in focus as Unifor seeks to make a deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles FCA, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.

The existing agreements — applicable to the some 20,000 Canadian workers at the three automakers which Unifor represents — expire on Sept. 21. 

Auto sales plummeted this spring during the peak months of the pandemic, and production lines stalled as automakers shut down plants for months beginning in March. FCA, Ford and GM re-opened Canadian operations on May 19.

Despite the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, Unifor intends to take a hard line in these negotiations. National president Jerry Dias says he will not make concessions like workers did following the economic recession in 2008 to help manufacturers weather the financial crisis.

"We gave up jobs, we froze wages, we made changes on our benefit plan, there were a whole host of workplace issue changes, but frankly that's not in the cards [this time],| Dias said to CBC News ahead of negotiations Wednesday.

"These are companies that have been printing money and we expect that they'll be doing well fairly shortly, so this is about progress for working class people."

Dias says auto workers made many sacrifices in their contract following the 2008 recession that the union won't stand for in this round of talks. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Dias says he won't let COVID-19 be an "excuse" for manufacturers going forward as the union tries to secure new product commitments and job security for plants in Ontario cities Windsor, Oakville, Brampton and St. Catharines.

"We have a very impressive agenda in front of us but we're up for the task," he said. 

But Jason Stein, publisher of Automotive News in Detroit, is less optimistic. 

"There's a lot of doubts about what the market will look like," said Stein. "We're dealing in an era of extreme uncertainty."

Last year's United Auto Workers contracts left Unifor little to work with, he said, adding that a presidential election may put more pressure on the Detroit Three not to invest outside the U.S. while unemployment remains high there. 

There are some positives, said Stein, including a favourable exchange rate and Canada's relative control over the spread of COVID-19. 

But when it comes to much-needed new product to hit factory floors, Stein says the union shouldn't be too hopeful.

"There is no indication that any kind of commitment is coming down the line," he said. 

"When you look at product there are no guarantees that will be on the table and that's the biggest stumbling block that Unifor has going into these."

Ontario factories facing tough times

Dias had stressed the need for those new products to hit manufacturing floors back in February, when FCA announced they'd be eliminating a third shift at the Windsor Assembly Plant affecting 1,500 jobs and hundreds more at feeder plants. 

"It's not just a question of Chrysler in Windsor, but we need to know what Chrysler is doing in Brampton and we have some real problems with their Etobicoke facility," Dias said in February.

Employees inside the FCA Windsor Assembly Plant wearing protective face masks after they returned to work in May. Auto factories closed in mid-March due to the pandemic. (Submitted by FCA Canada)

He said the decision to close meant the union was "heading for a perfect storm with Fiat Chrysler in September."

"Candidly, there's not going to be an agreement with Fiat Chrysler until we find a solution for the Windsor Assembly Plant," Dias told CBC News in February. 

FCA has two assembly plants in Ontario — one in Windsor and the other in Brampton — as well as an aluminum casting plant in Etobicoke.

"FCA remains committed to Canada and we look forward to negotiating a fair agreement that will help us continue to invest in our future, while creating opportunities for our employees, their families and our communities," said FCA Canada's head of human resources, Jacqueline Oliva, in a press statement. 

"We have the largest hourly workforce and, in 2019, FCA Canada produced the most vehicles of the domestic three automakers. As the automotive industry continues to rapidly change, our goal in this round of negotiations is to reach a labour agreement that will sustain the Company's competitiveness."

David Paterson, vice president of corporate affairs for GM Canada, says the company is looking for a more 'flexible' agreement with the union. (CBC)

But FCA's plants aren't the only ones facing an uncertain future. 

Sam Fiorani, vice-president of global forecasting at AutoForecast Solutions, said Ford is planning to stop making the Edge crossover utility vehicle, which raises questions about the future of the Oakville assembly plant that builds it.

The plant employs 4,200 people, and Fiorani said there was no indication from the company another product was hitting the factory. 

In an emailed statement to CBC News, a Ford Canada spokesperson says the Edge and Lincoln Nautilius also manufactured at the plant are part of the company's "winning portfolio," with sales on the rise, but does not confirm that new models will be built in the suburbs of Toronto after 2021.

"The global COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented challenge for our organization, demanding creative, agile solutions and some tough decisions," said said Rose Pao of Ford Canada.

Dias says the union will be looking to secure new products for Canadian factories. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

After strong demands from union members and political pressure, General Motors decided to keep part of its old assembly plant to produce spare parts.

Only 300 of the 2,600 workers the company employed in Oshawa were able to keep their jobs.

Existing agreements for some 20,000 Canadian autoworkers are set to expire on Sept. 21. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

"We want to work together with Unifor to arrive at a flexible and solid agreement for the next four years," said David Paterson, vice president of corporate and environmental affairs for GM Canada.

"We have well-compensated employees and we want them to be so. At the same time with COVID-19 and the recovering, economy we need to be flexible."

Despite the end of vehicle assembly in Oshawa, the company says it has no plans to leave Canada, noting that it has made significant investments in that facility and the one located in St. Catharines.

Negotiations will continue to be done in person with strict physical-distancing measures in place. 

Unifor is expected to announce which automotive company's deal will serve as the model for other collective agreements. 

If no deal is reached, a strike authorization vote could be due in the coming weeks. 

With files from Philippe de Montigny, The Canadian Press


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