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Canada's Unifor union taps Ford as lead company in auto negotiations

Jun 02, 2023

Unifor, the union representing some 18,000 Detroit Three autoworkers in Canada, said Tuesday it has selected Ford Motor Co. as the lead company with which it will bargain to pattern contracts with the other automakers.

“I’ve concluded that the best opportunity for our union’s 18,000 members in the auto sector to achieve our bargaining objective is with Ford Motor Co.," Unifor President Lana Payne said during a news conference.

Payne noted that she had previously said Ford might make the most sense as the lead company. As the talks shift to focus on reaching an agreement with Ford ahead of the current contracts' expiration at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 18, negotiations with GM and Stellantis will pause. The deal that Unifor reaches with Ford, once ratified, will set the pattern for agreements with the other two companies.

“I saw advantages with Ford," she said. "I saw the clearest path on what will be a historic EV retooling of the Oakville Assembly Plant. I was encouraged by Ford Motor Co.’s transparency with our union on product programs and business plans. I was especially encouraged that Ford publicly stated their desire to lead, to craft a blueprint for the EV future, knowing full well our priorities as a union coming into these talks.”

Ford announced earlier this year that it would invest $1.3 billion to transform its Oakville Assembly Plant in Ontario to assemble multiple electric vehicles and battery packs starting in 2025. The facility has about 3,000 employees.

Unifor represents 5,680 Ford members at the Oakville Assembly Plant, Annex Engine Plant, Essex Engine Plant, Bramalea and Paris Parts Distribution Centres, Casselman Parts Distribution Centre, Edmonton Parts Distribution Centre, and office and clerical workers in Windsor and Bramalea, according to the union.

Ford to invest $1.3B in Oakville, Ontario, plant to build EVs

"Ford of Canada and Unifor have a long track record of productive collaboration. For our industry, this is a time like no other and success requires us to adapt. At Ford, we are committed to finding new approaches, new solutions, and the flexibility required to be successful in the short- and long-term in Canada," Steven Majer, vice president of human resources for Ford of Canada, said in a statement. "We look forward to working together with Unifor to create a blueprint that leads our employees, our business, our customers, and our communities into the future."

The announcement from Unifor comes after the union's members overwhelmingly voted to authorize strikes with the Detroit automakers if necessary, a procedural step that takes place in the course of bargaining a new contract. It also comes as the United Auto Workers, which represents nearly 150,000 Detroit Three autoworkers in the United States, has indicated it will not select a lead company but rather bargain with all three simultaneously. UAW members have also voted to authorize strikes against the Detroit Three.

Asked about what it means for Unifor that the UAW could strike one or more of the Detroit automakers come Sept. 15, Payne said the union will "cross the bridge of whether or not there’s going to be a strike in the U.S. if there is a strike in the U.S." and said Unifor leaders are "planning for all scenarios.”

She has repeatedly emphasized that Unifor is pursuing its own strategy and priorities, separate from those of the UAW. The two unions are in negotiations with the Detroit automakers at the same time for the first time in a generation.

Unifor opened negotiations with Ford, GM and Stellantis Aug. 10. Unifor has presented a "directional framework" to each automaker, laying out "markers" to the union's idea of a final agreement, Payne said, noting that "progress is being made" in talks with each of the companies.

Unifor has laid out pensions, wage increases, new plant investments and support for workers during the transition to electric vehicles as its top bargaining priorities.

Unions hold rare sway as Unifor begins contract talks with automakers

Payne said that she selected Ford because of recent progress with the Dearborn automaker at the bargaining table, "areas of alignment" the two sides have identified, what she characterized as transparency on the company's part, and because she believes the union is in a strong bargaining position with Ford.

“Oakville is a centerpiece of Ford’s EV ambitions in North America. The Windsor operations produce some of the most sought-after engines and component parts for the most lucrative vehicles in the Ford lineup," she said. "Add to that your 99% strike mandate, and we’re feeling strong, supported and ready to bargain.”

Spokespeople for GM and Stellantis issued statements after Unifor's announcement.

"GM has been making significant investments at all our Canadian manufacturing operations and welcomes working with Unifor to reach a cooperative, flexible and competitive labour contract," Jennifer Wright, executive director of GM Canada communications, said in a statement.

LouAnn Gosselin, head of communications for Stellantis in Canada, said in a statement that the automaker "respects Unifor's decision" and is "committed to on-going discussions with Unifor to achieve a competitive collective agreement."

As for her outlook on averting a strike in Canada, Payne expressed confidence in Unifor's ability to reach an agreement with Ford by the deadline, even as she acknowledged the round of talks is "difficult."

“We’ve made progress with them in a week. We’ll see how it goes," she said. "But obviously at this point in time, we wouldn’t have selected Ford as the target if we didn’t feel confident about where we could get to.”

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