Oshawa’s future at play in talks with General Motors


Vanessa Lu

For auto workers in Oshawa, it’s do-or-die time.

In a city that was once synonymous with General Motors, there’s no promise of any future auto assembly work beyond 2019, so there are real fears production could shut down altogether.

That’s why Unifor, formerly the Canadian Auto Workers union, has threatened to strike at midnight next Monday, unless it wins a commitment from the company for more future work in Oshawa.

“If we don’t nail it now, we’re not going to nail it done, ever,” said Jerry Dias, the union’s national president. “If they are planning on closing Oshawa, then we’re going to have a strike.”

GM officials have long insisted that it won’t talk about new products in Canada until a collective agreement is signed first.

That’s why the union picked General Motors over Ford or Fiat Chrysler as its target to negotiate a contract that will hopefully set a pattern for the other two automakers.

Dias concedes choosing Ford or Fiat Chrysler would have been an easier path, but that’s not his style or his union’s style.

“If there is an 800-pound gorilla in the room, you might as well deal with the friggin’ gorilla. That’s what General Motors is,” said Dias in an interview on Tuesday, noting that a week after naming GM as the target company, there have been no discussions on the union’s main demand.

“We haven’t talked about product yet – they know they are going to have come clean realistically,” he said.

“We are prepared to fight to preserve the industry,” Dias said, pointing to the 97 per cent strike vote of its 6,600 members at GM. “But I am convinced we’re going to get a deal – the only question is when. I really hope we get it before the 19th.”

The union’s four-year contracts with the Big Three automakers expire at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 19, and that midnight deadline is fixed.

GM declined to comment on the talks, referring to an earlier statement issued when the company was named the target. “At GM Canada we remain focused on working with Unifor to reach a mutually beneficial and competitive new agreement,” the statement said.

Kristin Dziczek, director of research at the independent Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the union’s effort secure a product commitment should be top of the agenda.

“They have chosen the right battle,” she said. “Product has become the new job security – because if you have a product that sells well, then that’s guaranteed work.”

But Dziczek said it will be a difficult negotiation for the union, because the automakers have been doing well financially, setting record profits.

GM reported nearly $10 billion (U.S.) in profits last year and $4.8 billion (U.S.) in the first half this year.

“They are not going to be taking to the membership an agreement that says, ‘we gave up x, y or z,’” to get product commitments, she said, although GM will likely be pushing for changes to a hybrid pension for new hires and profit-sharing, both non-starters for the union.

Though Unifor has staked a new vehicle production in Oshawa as its line in the sand, Dziczek doesn’t see anything that could go immediately to Oshawa, which has two production lines, given most vehicles are already assigned.

“There are no products hanging out there looking for a home,” she said.

In recent years, GM has closed the truck assembly plant in Oshawa and moved Camaro production to Michigan, so what’s left is limited production of the Chevy Equinox and less popular vehicles like the Buick Regal, Cadillac XTS and the Chevy Impala.

Even though some analysts have speculated about GM pulling out of Canada altogether, Dziczek doesn’t see that, especially since its CAMI assembly plant in Ingersoll, whose workers are covered by a separate collective agreement, is in high-gear, running three shifts.

“I don’t think they would pull out completely. There is nothing indicating that this is a pullout round of talks,” she said.
John Holmes, an emeritus professor of geography at Queen’s University, said the union’s strategy to make GM its target is to win government support.

“I do think this is a very important round of negotiations for Canada – there is a lot at stake – including GM’s future in Canada,” he said.

“But I wonder the degree to which the union is making commitments of new products such a central issue . . . whether this is part of the union’s strategy trying to get jobs on the political agenda for the provincial government and the federal government,” said Holmes, who studies the North American auto industry.

Dias acknowledges that the stars appear to be aligning now, given that both Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau understand the importance of auto manufacturing to the Canadian economy.

“They get it. They are not foolish,” he said, adding that the Stephen Harper government was resistant to investment. “This whole thing about taxpayers’ money going for profitable companies . . . I understand the argument.

“But these companies have options. So we can be puritans, and be holier than thou and not have any jobs. Then we would be fools. There would no tax base,” Dias said, noting other jurisdictions including Mexico are wooing car companies.

If GM’s auto workers walk off the job next week, the union could immediately impact production at the CAMI plant, due to engines and transmissions built in St. Catharines, he said.

Those parts also go to nine U.S. assembly plants including ones that build the large SUVs that are selling well.

Dias travelled to Michigan last weekend to meet with Dennis Williams, president of the United Auto Workers, who has promised support, though he hasn’t specified what it might be.

Dias said before the UAW headed into its last round of negotiations, he spoke at the union’s convention, pledging Unifor’s support.

“I pledged to the convention if there was a dispute in the United States, we wouldn’t do one thing in Canada to undermine what they were doing,” Dias said. “We wouldn’t beef up production with the engine plant, we wouldn’t do anything.”

And if push comes to shove, Dias said: “Dennis will do the exact same thing,” adding “he’s an incredible trade unionist and personal friend.”

But Unifor is still hoping it won’t come to that.

“I understand that we have power – but the last thing in the world I want to do is use it. Any fool can fight,” Dias said. “It doesn’t take a genius to have a fight . . . it takes real brains to find a solution.”

The Toronto Star