Unifor selected General Motors as its target company as it continues negotiations with the Detroit 3 automakers, less than two weeks before its four-year labor contracts expire.
Unifor, which represents about 23,000 Canadian auto workers employed by the Detroit 3, will aim to pattern its contract talks with Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles off a potential deal with GM. The union’s contracts with each of the automakers end on Sept. 19.
“We chose GM because we believe that is the best way to get all three companies in line with what our priorities are,” Unifor President Jerry Dias told reporters.
Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, has framed this round of labor negotiations as crucial to the future of auto manufacturing in the country, which has frequently lost out on investment to Mexico and the U.S. Dias has repeatedly said the union will strike if it fails to secure investment at facilities it sees as in danger of closure: GM’s Oshawa assembly plant, Ford’s two Windsor engine plants and FCA’s Brampton assembly plant.
Unifor could face an uphill battle in securing new product at Oshawa, which lacks production commitments beyond the next few years. GM has repeatedly said it will not discuss new product at the plant until after labor negotiations conclude, which drove Dias to say last month that the union and automaker were “miles apart.”
Dias reiterated today that Unifor would not come to an agreement with GM unless it first secures investment in Oshawa and at the St. Catharines Propulsion Plant.
“That may be considered a line in the sand,” Dias said. “So be it.”
The Oshawa plant, which employs about 2,400 hourly workers on its two lines, produces the Chevrolet Equinox, Chevrolet Impala, Buick Regal and Cadillac XTS. Production of all four models is set to wind down or be moved elsewhere over the next several years.
"At GM Canada we remain focused on working with Unifor to reach a mutually beneficial and competitive new agreement,” GM said in a statement today.
Dias said today that GM has not changed its stance on pushing off investment discussions until after ratification in talks with the union.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a strike,” Dias said. “I think General Motors is going to work with us to find a solution. But is there a possibility? The answer is yes. So the first thing that General Motors is going to have to do is change tact because their public comments that there will not be an investment announcement until after we’ve ratified the collective agreement -- well, that’s just not going to happen.”
He said Unifor chose GM because it provides the union with the “largest challenges” that need to be addressed, mirroring the selection of Ford as the target company in 2012 bargaining.
“I’d rather just get it out of the way,” Dias said. “That’s probably the simple way of saying it. Who do I perceive and who do we perceive as the biggest challenge? It’s General Motors. So if we’re going to have a dust-up, we might as well have it immediately.”
Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry, Labor and Economics Group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the selection of GM was not surprising given the strategies unions typically employ when choosing a target. She said unions will typically either pick a company that it believes it can secure the best deal with, or it will choose to “fight off the hardest one first.”
Colin James, president of Unifor Local 222, which represents GM workers in Oshawa, said the union will be able to “determine our own destiny” in negotiations with the automaker. The local has been particularly vocal in demanding new investment from GM, having launched a “GM Oshawa Matters” campaign this summer.
Despite GM’s hard-line stance against discussing new product until after negotiations, the automaker said earlier this year that it would hire about 700 engineers in Oshawa.
Now is the time
Dias said now is the time for the union to demand new investment from the Detroit 3 because of the relative strength of the companies’ finances and sales figures.
“If we cannot win investment with the stars completely aligned then we would be naive to expect that we would win investment when the cycle starts to turn in the opposite direction,” Dias said.
Unifor’s current contract with GM covers about 3,860 hourly workers -- 2,400 in Oshawa, 1,400 in St. Catharines and 60 at GM’s Woodstock, Ontario, parts distribution center. This year’s negotiations do not include the roughly 2,600 workers at the CAMI Assembly Plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, where workers are under contract until September 2017.
Dias noted the union's members at CAMI would not accept engines from other sites.
"The reality is we are not going to accept engines from anywhere else to go into our CAMI facility," Dias said in an interview. "General Motors would be foolish to attempt to ship in engines from somewhere else."
Dias also said he expected U.S. plants represented by the UAW would not increase output to replace production from St Catharines.
"I would expect that the UAW will respect any action that we have here in Canada," he said.
A UAW spokesman said the union's president, Dennis Williams, was traveling and unavailable for comment.
"I'm not sure how sympathetic the UAW would be because one of the issues could be taking product away from them," said Arthur Schwartz, a labor analyst and former GM negotiator.
In addition to locking in product at its Detroit 3 plants, Dias has said the union is seeking to secure wage gains for its workers.
No profit sharing
He said Unifor has “zero interest” in discussing profit-sharing with the Detroit 3. Canadian auto workers do not receive profit sharing checks, in contrast to their American counterparts.
“We don’t follow the U.S. pattern, and the UAW doesn’t follow our pattern,” Dias said. “I don’t see that changing in 2016 negotiations.”
Unifor and its predecessor, the Canadian Auto Workers, have resisted calls from the Detroit 3 to pay out profit-sharing checks with its members for much of the past 30 years, Dziczek said. The CAW split from the UAW in 1984.
“Profit sharing has been part of UAW contracts for 30 years, and that’s part of what caused the break with Canada,” Dziczek said.
Unifor was formed in 2013 when the CAW merged with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.
Reuters contributed to this report.