Unifor certainly isn’t taking the easy way out.
In selecting General Motors Sept. 6 as its target company for pattern negotiations, the union is setting itself up for a fight as the Sept. 19 deadline approaches.
Unifor is demanding new product commitments at GM’s Oshawa assembly plant, where no products are scheduled to be made beyond 2019, as well as at the St. Catharines, Ont., propulsion plant. GM, meanwhile, has repeatedly said it will not discuss investments until after a new labour deal is ratified.
To say Unifor faces an uphill battle in securing new product in Oshawa would probably be an understatement. Global economic trends have sent most auto investments southward for much of the past 20 years, and there are no obvious products waiting to be shipped to Oshawa.
After promising new products and job security, Unifor President Jerry Dias and union leadership risk taking major hits to their credibility if they fail to get GM to back off its hard-line stance.
But there is plenty for Unifor to potentially gain from picking GM as the target, and there are several reasons why it makes sense to do so.
As Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry, Labor and Economics Group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said in an interview, unions typically take one of two approaches to selecting a target automaker.
One way is to pick the company the union knows it can get the best deal out of. Had Unifor taken this route, it’s possible it could have secured new investments with Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles before negotiating with GM, potentially putting pressure on the company to follow its competitors’ leads (in theory, at least).
But GM thus far has publicly signaled zero interest in backing off its stance on investment, and I think it’s unlikely that it would have solely because Ford and FCA have promised new investment at their plants in this hypothetical scenario.
So that leaves the second option, which is to “climb the mountain,” as Dziczek told me. If there’s going to be a struggle at the negotiating table – or a strike – it’s best to get it out of the way early.
Or, as Dias told reporters on Tuesday, “If we’re going to have a dust-up, we might as well have it immediately.”
And while Unifor lacks leverage at Oshawa, it does hold a key piece of high ground at the St. Catharines plant, which produces engines and transmissions for 12 GM models, including top sellers such as the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, the GMC Terrain and the Chevrolet Equinox.
A prolonged strike at St. Catharines would impact the company’s CAMI assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ont., which builds the Equinox and Terrain. CAMI workers cannot strike because they are under a separate labour agreement that expires in 2017, but Dias told Reuters on Sept. 6 that GM would be “foolish” to “ship in engines from somewhere else” because workers there wouldn’t accept them.
A prolonged strike, then, could potentially spell trouble for GM, which can ill afford to lose out on production of some of its highest-selling crossovers and pickups in a market unfavourable to cars.
And frankly, it would have been out of character for Dias to pick a company other than GM.
When Dias became Unifor’s first president, he said it was his mission to make the Canadian labour movement “stop playing defense and [begin] to play offense.”
The sports metaphor he employed is appropriate. In every interaction I’ve had with Dias, I’ve come away with a sense that he must get a major adrenaline rush from contentious negotiations such as these.
The passion he has for his cause is so intense that you’d be forgiven if you thought you were listening to a football coach firing up his team in the locker room.
So, perhaps it should be no surprise that GM was chosen as the target. Dias is a fighter, and there’s no doubt he has a massive fight ahead of him.