Stars align for auto industry revival in Canada, says Unifor’s Jerry Dias

Corporate investment, renewed government stimulus dovetail with potential NAFTA overhaul

Jerry Dias, speaking Feb. 17 at the first Automotive News Canada Congress, said that while he considers Trump to be “terrible” on most issues, his presidency gives the labour movement a chance to see its dream of renegotiating NAFTA come true. Photo credit: Arne Glassbourg

TORONTO -- United States President Donald Trump’s calls to renegotiate NAFTA and the Liberal federal government’s friendlier approach to the Canadian auto industry could combine to potentially reinvigorate Canada’s auto sector, Unifor President Jerry Dias said in a fiery address.

Dias, speaking Feb. 17 at the first Automotive News Canada Congress, said that while he considers Trump to be “terrible” on most issues, his presidency gives the labour movement a chance to see its dream of renegotiating NAFTA come true.

“He ran on an anti-establishment ticket and it resonated,” Dias said. “You know why? Because working class people understood what he said, that trade deals implemented in so many areas have not been good for American workers. And in that respect, and in that respect only, I agree.”

Trump has called on the U.S., Canada and Mexico to renegotiate NAFTA, which he has characterized as being unfair to American workers who have seen manufacturing jobs shifted overseas and to Mexico. The renegotiations have the potential to rattle the auto industry, as automakers and suppliers have shifted much of their manufacturing operations from Canada and the Midwestern U.S. to lower-wage Mexico.

“I know there’s a lot of fear-mongering out there saying, ‘Oh, no. This is going to be the end of the earth if NAFTA’s blown up or renegotiated,’” Dias said. “But from a Canadian perspective, do we wait until the trade deficit is … $200 billion before we go, ‘Maybe this isn’t in the best interest of Canadians the way it’s structured today’”

Speaking with Automotive News Canada following his remarks, Dias said any NAFTA renegotiation must include minimum wage standards.

Companies “have the ability to pay more than $6 per hour [in Mexico], but they choose not to,” Dias said. “There’s got to be some minimum guidelines.”

Dias said he speaks “frequently” with federal government officials on trade and said he is encouraged by the conversations he has had on the topic.

“They know my thoughts down to infinite detail on trade,” he said. “They see it as an opportunity.”

Dias praised the government for taking a friendlier stance on auto policy than it did under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, saying the Liberal government helped Unifor secure more than $1 billion in investment commitments at Canadian plants during 2016 labour talks with the Detroit Three.

2017 negotiations

Unifor will negotiate a new contract for workers at General Motors’ CAMI assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ont. The plant was not included in the contract Unifor negotiated with GM last year.

GM said earlier in January that it would eliminate more than 600 jobs at the plant as it shifts GMC Terrain production to Mexico, setting the stage for potentially contentious talks between the automaker and Unifor.

Dias said that Unifor has been in constant communication with GM about the planned cuts, saying the company “will have to make a different decision.”

“They know that we’re totally pissed off over the job losses,” Dias said. “We’re not going to accept it, so we’re going to have to find some solutions, and we have to do it now and not in bargaining.”

You can reach John Irwin at jirwin@crain.com -- Follow John on Twitter: @JohnDIrwin

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