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With Ford deal approved, Unifor sets sights on GM for next round of auto talks

Unifor says the pattern has been set with the ratification by workers of a new contract at Ford Motor Co. of Canada. Lana Payne, Unifor National President speaks at a press conference in Toronto, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

TORONTO — Canada's largest private sector union says it will turn to negotiations with General Motors after members voted to accept its labour agreement with Ford Motor Co. of Canada.

Hailing the agreement with Ford as a historic deal that met the union's priorities "in a big way," Unifor president Lana Payne said the union would be looking for the same from GM when talks begin Tuesday.

"I want to be clear, our expectation is that General Motors will follow the pattern set at Ford," she said in a video address.

The union chose GM in part because it currently has more leverage over the company than it does at Stellantis, said Payne. 

GM's Oshawa plant is running around the clock producing profitable pickup trucks and its St. Catharine's propulsion plant is also a linchpin for the company's operations, she said, while Stellantis' Windsor plant is facing down weeks for retooling. 

"I don't expect this to be an easy round of bargaining. And I want to make sure our union is best positioned to move this pattern forward for the benefit of all our members, active and retired."

Unifor will try to get key increases like the 20 to 25 per cent base pay raise, $10,000 bonuses, boosts to pensions including a shift back to defined benefits, and commitments around the electric vehicle transition that it secured at Ford.

Payne said the results of the contract show the union delivered on what it set out to achieve after it threatened to shut down all Ford plants in Canada with a strike.

"This doesn't happen by accident, or because Ford Motor Company is feeling generous. This happened because we have power as a union. And we showed we were prepared to wield that power."

Unifor, however, will be facing challenges both at GM and within its own union, experts say, after only 54 per cent of workers voted in favour of the deal with Ford compared with 81 per cent for their last contract. 

"The wild card here is will GM and Stellantis workers, will they ratify an agreement that's based on the Ford pattern, or will they want more, given their companies are bigger and more profitable?" said Steven Tufts, a labour expert at York University.

"No one is saying that significant gains weren't made, but those significant gains were made at a time when workers' expectations have increased, and in a period of growing inflation."

The negotiations also come as autoworkers in the U.S. push for much more, including at least 30 per cent wage gains, which will also have affected the Ford vote, said McMaster University associate professor Stephanie Ross.

"Even though the context of U.S. autoworkers is very different, their ambition and more militant approach has affected Canadian autoworkers’ sense of what they could or should be doing," she said by email.

The contract with Ford also includes the reactivation of a cost of living allowance that helps with inflation, increases in health benefits, and the addition of two new paid holidays.

Some of the areas the union didn't deliver on as much included profit sharing agreements, boosts to retiree pensions, and possibly some areas around part-time workers, said Tufts.

Unifor’s negotiations with GM cover approximately 4,300 workers at the St. Catharines Powertrain Plant, Oshawa Assembly Complex and Woodstock Parts Distribution Centre.

The roughly 1,350 hourly workers at GM's CAMI plant in Ingersoll, Ont. are covered by a separate agreement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023.

Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press

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