The Canadian autoworkers union Unifor is pivoting to negotiate with General Motors Co. after its members ratified a historic contract with Ford Motor Co. on Sunday.
Unifor chose GM over Stellantis NV, maker of Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram vehicles, for its next set of contract talks, which are set to resume Tuesday. Unifor President Lana Payne in a video message said the union currently has more leverage over the Detroit automaker than it does its crosstown rival to bring the pattern set at Ford to its other autoworker members.
“We’ve got an incredibly strong pattern agreement at Ford that will serve us well over the coming years,” she said. “Our job now is to negotiate that pattern in the form of a renewal collective agreement with General Motors and Stellantis.”
In a statement sent by GM spokesperson Jennifer Wright, the automaker said it welcomes the resumption of negotiations to reach a tentative agreement: “We look forward to working with our Unifor partners to build a competitive future that also recognizes our employees’ contributions to our shared success.”
Unifor’s negotiations with GM cover approximately 4,300 workers at the St. Catharines Powertrain Plant building engines for the Chevrolet Equinox and Corvette, Oshawa Assembly Complex making light- and heavy-duty Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks and parts for other vehicles, and the Woodstock Parts Distribution Centre in Ontario.
“Just as we had with Ford Motor Company, we hold a lot of negotiating leverage with GM,” Payne said. “Their Oshawa facility is working around-the-clock producing very lucrative pick-up trucks. The St. Catharines engine and transmission facility, like Ford’s powertrain operations, is a lynchpin for GM’s North American operations. Our Woodstock distribution centre is also a key element of the company’s parts network. I don’t expect this to be an easy round of talks, and I want to make sure our union is best positioned to move this pattern forward for the benefit of all members, active and retired.”
Larry Savage, a labor studies professor at Brock University in Ontario, said in an email that GM’s operations are highly integrated: “Targeting GM makes sense insofar as shutting down plants in Oshawa and St. Catharines and the GM distribution centre in Woodstock would give Unifor maximum leverage in bargaining.”
In contrast, Payne said Stellantis’ Windsor Assembly Plant, where it builds the Chrysler Pacifica minivans, is slated for retooling as a part of a $2.8 billion investment in the plant and the Brampton Assembly Plant outside Toronto, which builds the Dodge muscle cars and Chrysler 300 sedan that are going out of production at the end of the year.
Downtime at Windsor limits Unifor’s leverage, Payne said, and the union is seeking more specifics on the company’s product and investment plan for Brampton.
“I believe we need more clarity on this before our talks commence,” she said.
Unifor’s three-year deal with Ford acknowledges workers’ greatest priorities, the union said Saturday, and includes the single largest negotiated general wage increase in the history of Unifor, formerly the Canadian Auto Workers. Workers approved the agreement with a 54% majority.
“That’s a sign of a successful negotiation,” Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, said about the slim margin. “There was no fat left on the table. Both sides did their job.”
That also is helpful for GM to know the Ford offer is the minimum they can expect Unifor’s rank-and-file to support, he added, which likely will help it to reach a tentative agreement with the United Auto Workers in the United States, as well. The UAW is on strike at GM’s Wentzville midsize pickup truck and full-size commercial van plant outside St. Louis as well as its parts distribution centers.
“Now that Ford has a deal, GM can follow the pattern in Canada with Unifor,” Wheaton said. “Once they find a solution in Canada, that can help GM find a solution in the U.S.”
The approval of the deal at Ford means 5,600 employees, split between three plants in Ontario — Oakville Assembly, Essex Engine and Windsor Engine — once again have a contract. Unlike the UAW, Unifor opted to negotiate only with one company at a time. The UAW went on strike Sept. 15 at select facilities of Ford, GM and Stellantis.
Unifor’s contract with Ford includes wage increases of 10% the first year, 2% the second year and 3% the year after, as well as cost-of-living adjustments. It also reduces the amount of time an in-progression employee needs to reach the top pay scale from eight years to four. For those workers who haven’t reached top scale, it raises the percentage those workers get in the first three years.
Over the life of the agreement, senior employees will see their hourly rate rise from $37.33 Canadian to $44.52, an increase of 19.2%. Kathleen O’Keefe, a Unifor spokesperson, said the union projects inflation of 2.5% over the next three years, translating to an additional $1.61 in COLA added to top-scale members’ wages, bringing their projected hourly rate to $46.13. The Canadian dollar is equivalent to 74 cents in U.S. currency.
Permanent workers will get a ratification bonus of $10,000 Canadian, while temporary ones will get a $4,000 Canadian bonus. The agreement also includes “significant increases” to retirement programs, Ford said.
Defined benefit contributions likely will be a sticking point at GM, Wheaton said, but with Ford being its main direct competitor, it likely won’t want to be left behind either.
“Ford is the good. GM is the bad. Stellantis is the ugly,” he said. “They chose Ford first, got an agreement, and it helped set the pattern. General Motors will be difficult. I don’t think it will be a quick negotiation, but I think it’s possible. Stellantis is a nightmare, though I think they want a deal more so in Canada than they do the U.S. It’s harder for GM to pull out of the U.S. than Stellantis.”
Staff Writer Hayley Harding contributed.