It was pattern bargaining that allowed Unifor to secure the most significant gains it has received from the Detroit Three in years during this year’s labor negotiations.
But it could also prove to give union leadership major headaches when membership votes on a tentative deal with Ford Motor Co. this weekend.
Unifor early today agreed to a tentative four-year labor pact with Ford that includes $700 million in investment commitments, mostly at the Essex engine plant in Windsor, Ont., which will receive a “major” new engine program.
While specifics are still unknown, the tentative deal appears to mostly follow the pattern established by new contracts with General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Under those deals, workers receive a $6,000 signing bonus, three $2,000 lump sum payments and wage increases in exchange for a new defined-contribution retirement plan for new hires.
That Ford would agree to such a relatively rich contract (at least in the context of the Canadian auto industry) is a testament to the effectiveness of pattern bargaining.
The strategy, also employed by Unifor’s U.S. counterparts at the UAW, allowed the union to draw a firm line in the sand during negotiations with Ford.
The automaker wanted to introduce temporary full-time workers and change the long-term health care plans of veteran workers.
Unifor, pointing to the pattern established with GM and FCA, essentially said “no way,” and the typically strike-averse Ford had no choice but to back off those demands.
It’s probably safe to say that this tentative deal would not look like what it does had Unifor started negotiations off with a blank slate.
But it might also be true to say that the union might have ended up having an easier time this weekend persuading members at Ford’s Oakville, Ont., assembly plant if it was able to more effectively break from the pattern.
Oakville plant chairman Bob Scott told reporters early Tuesday morning that the union sought to shorten the 10-year wage grow-in for new members and to prevent the move to the defined-contribution retirement plan for new hires.
Had Unifor been successful in achieving those goals, the risk of running into resistance from members at Oakville, where local leadership has signaled skepticism about the pattern’s chances of passing, would likely have been diminished.
Instead, the tentative agreement’s chances for ratification are uncertain. Just as the pattern made it difficult for Ford to secure gains on its end, it made it tough for Unifor to break significantly from it as well.
This weekend’s ratification votes will be crucial to Unifor as it gauges the success of this year’s round of Detroit Three negotiations. If it passes, the union will have secured about $1.6 billion in investments from the Detroit automakers, a once unthinkable number. That figure is likely good enough to at least temporarily slow the auto jobs exodus away from Canada, or perhaps to outright stop it.
But a rejection might ultimately prove to be devastating to the union. In an update posted to its Facebook page on Sunday, Unifor Local 200 in Windsor warned its counterparts in Oakville that rejecting the pattern and striking to demand more out of Ford could ultimately lead to the company abandoning at least some of its Canadian operations.
“The company is stating that it will not do business in a jurisdiction that has Ford paying more than their competitors,” the update reads. “Ford has gone further to say that if there is a strike based on wanting more than the pattern economics, it will reconsider their Canadian facilities and will exit Canadian operations.”
Whether there is enough in the Ford agreement to persuade skeptical Oakville members to sign on remains to be seen.
But what is clear is that the difference between a hugely successful and a potentially disastrous round of negotiations might come down to this weekend’s votes. And either way, the end result will be due in large part to the nature of pattern bargaining.