TORONTO — Bottleneck strikes have less to do with saving a union money than they do with sending a message to the automaker and affected workers, said Jerry Dias, president of the Canadian union Unifor.
In bottleneck strikes, workers walk out at key automaker component plants or suppliers' facilities, causing other operations to shut down or otherwise be hampered. It's a strategy the UAW and Unifor have embraced in recent years, one that Unifor deployed on a small scale in the months following General Motors' November announcement that vehicle assembly in Oshawa, Ontario, would soon end. On Jan. 15, about 100 workers walked off the job at an Inteva Products plant near Oshawa, and on Feb. 8, workers at a nearby Lear Corp. plant followed suit, causing production to briefly stop at the GM plant. Oshawa workers also staged a sit-down protest during a Jan. 8 shift and later blockaded the entrance to the nearby GM Canada headquarters for two days.
Though each action was limited in scale, Dias said the goal was to send a message to GM that Unifor was serious about disrupting its operations if need be, while also building "absolute solidarity" among workers on the assembly line and at the suppliers that feed the factory.
"The idea behind mobilizing in the feeder plants is that it really shows our members in the feeder plants that they have a lot of skin in the game, just like our members do that work in the assembly plants," he said.
Dias said bottleneck strikes have little to do with trying to save the union money, at least in Unifor's case, saying its defense fund would last for "months and months" even if it struck all of its major employers at once.
"Anything we do, it's all based on what's the impact it's going to have and if it gets me to the finish line quicker," he said.
Unifor has not engaged in any Oshawa-related strike actions since February, and it suspended an anti-GM media campaign in March as the automaker and union engaged in discussions about a potential solution. Dias said the actions at the supplier plants might have helped get GM's attention, though other factors were also at play.
"When you have a campaign like the one we had with General Motors, there's no one silver bullet," he said. "Yes, that certainly got their attention. But ultimately, it was really just one play in the playbook."
It's a strategy that can be fraught with risks, as Unifor found out Feb. 22, when Ontario's labor relations board ruled the union's supplier strikes to be illegal and barred the union from pursuing them again. Dias, however, has struck a defiant tone, saying Unifor is "not a union that's afraid of injunctions."
"Those that think they can hide behind the legal process really don't know us very well, because that doesn't mean anything to me," Dias said. "We're not going to stop fighting because some legal tribunal tells us we have to. And if you look at the history of the labor movement, it wasn't exactly built on blind obedience."
Unifor's next formal negotiations with the Detroit 3 take place in 2020, and UAW contracts are typically used as a template for talks in Canada. Dias said he expects the UAW to "fight tooth and nail" to maintain its U.S. footprint.
"Their members clearly expect action, and my guess is the UAW is going to give it to them," he said. "They're just as furious as us about the exodus of jobs to Mexico. This isn't complicated."