Unifor's stance? There will be nothing to negotiate if plants close

Jason Stein is publisher of Automotive News Canada.

Man bites dog. Deer shoots hunter. Union leader looks for investment over wages.

When Unifor President Jerry Dias went on the record last month to discuss the priorities during the upcoming negotiations between the Detroit Three automakers and the workers’ union, Dias sounded downright pragmatic.

Job 1 during this fall’s negotiations?

“Solidifying the footprint in Canada,” Dias emphatically told the Canadian Press (CP) in late July.

What’s at stake?

“The future of the industry,” Dias said.

But wages? Where was the talk of wages?

“Negotiating wage increases and other things for our members is moot if we don’t have an assembly plant.”

He couldn’t be more right.

Through the decades, the fight between the union and automakers has all too often been focused on short-term gains and long-term disdain.

The result is a dismantling of the Canadian auto industry – amid a gold rush of North American investment.

From 2006 through 2015, auto suppliers spent $48.4 billion building or expanding factories in the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to the study by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

And Canada has prospered the least, attracting only $580 million in supplier investments. Or, about 1.2 per cent.

That’s downright staggering.

Among them: Canada's currency tends to fluctuate, which worries manufacturers in the long run. And the higher cost of heath care in the United States is now a non factor, thanks to Obamacare. Throw in a shifting supply base and the combination is severe.

So, what’s a union president to do?

Four years ago, during the last round of bargaining, Detroit’s manufacturers had just emerged from a dark recession. Uncertainty abounded.

But this round, as Dias says, must be focused on securing a footprint. It’s his only option.

With auto sales on a record pace, Dias is playing his only card – emphasizing that automakers have been “making money hand-over-first.”

What’s needed are large-volume products for an extended period of time. Anything less will result in the same conversations the next time around. Or worse.

Magna International Inc. CEO Don Walker, who’s at the end of the whip of any shift in the industry, put it as clearly as possible: Automakers, the union and federal and provincial governments all have a role to play in keeping two assembly plants going in Ontario.

“The general public and the media have no concept of the spinoff tax benefits of this industry,” Walker told Bloomberg news recently.

“If the Chrysler Bramalea plant or GM close those plants, that would be very bad news for Ontario, for the taxpayers and the people here.”

Dias has a message that’s equally blunt: “If we can’t negotiate a settlement that gives our members security while times are good, we would be naive to believe that we can negotiate stability when times are bad,” he told CP.

“So the stars are aligned for us, candidly.”

Stars amid an increasingly darkened sky.

You can reach Jason Stein at jstein@crain.com -- Follow Jason on Twitter: @jasonstein