More than 8,000 Fiat Chrysler Automobile workers represented by Unifor are set to vote Sunday and into Monday on a tentative three-year contract.
The vast majority of those workers are based in Windsor, Ont., and Brampton, Ont., sites of the automaker’s two Canadian assembly plants. As with every tentative agreement it reaches, union leadership will need to convince members at those plants that the deal is good for them now and in the future.
It was able to do that with Ford Motor Co. workers in September, when 81 per cent of voting workers signalled support for a contract that included wage gains, bonuses and a planned $1.8-billion investment in its Oakville, Ont., assembly plant.
But if the new FCA contract is to be ratified, union leaders will likely need to answer a set of different questions for workers at each of the FCA plants.
At the Windsor minivan plant, questions from members might focus on how firm FCA’s commitment to a planned $1.35-billion-to-$1.5-billion investment is. According to Unifor, the automaker plans to spend that much to begin building battery-electric “and/or” plug-in hybrid vehicles on a new platform at the Windsor plant starting in 2024. Production of the Chrysler Pacifica, Voyager and Grand Caravan minivans would continue alongside the new product.
The investment appears to fulfill a key priority for Unifor, which wanted a new product for the plant following the end of third-shift minivan production there earlier this year. The union expects the third shift to return by 2024, following about 38 weeks of ramp-up that would begin in 2023.
But there remains a lot we don’t know about FCA’s plans. Unifor President Jerry Dias said it was too soon to know what specifically the automaker might build on the new platform. He said that the platform would allow for great flexibility for FCA, allowing it to build crossovers, cars or pickups, depending on what it wants to do, given market demand.
"This is about global platforms and about the ability to turn on a dime based on consumers’ demands," he said.
Dias said the investment is contingent upon market conditions and government support, which is in the works. That could raise concerns about whether FCA might back out its plans if the market takes a turn for the worse or if it doesn't secure enough government support.
Dias said he did not expect FCA to back out due to lack of government incentives, saying the federal and provincial governments are expected to offer financial support, as they did with the Ford deal.
“I don’t see that happening,” Dias said Thursday when asked if the government does come through. “The reality is everyone understands the importance of this industry.”
Instead, the potential for unforeseen adverse market conditions down the line are likely the biggest risk to FCA’s plans for Windsor. Of course, that is the case with every automaker’s product plans.
“Unifor and FCA have come to this agreement, and it’s fully their intent to do this,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice-president of industry, labour and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “But there was full intent to make a series of investments in 2007 in the U.S., but it didn’t happen because 2008 and 2009 hit.”
The union expects the new product to result in about 2,000 additional jobs at the plant by 2024, welcome news after a reduction of about 1,500 jobs earlier this year when the third shift was cut. About 425 workers remain on layoff from that cut and would be recalled under the plan, according to Unifor.
Will that, plus the promise of significant bonuses, raises and a reduction in the wage grow-in period for new hires get most Windsor workers on board? We’ll know by Monday, when the ratification results are expected to be revealed.
Meanwhile, in Brampton, some workers might be more concerned about its lack of major investments. FCA plans to invest about $50 million in Brampton over the course of the contract, which ensures continued production of the Chrysler 300 and the introduction of three variants for the Dodge Charger and Challenger muscle cars it builds there.
A cloud of uncertainty has hovered over Brampton for years. The Charger and Challenger remain popular and highly profitable vehicles for FCA, but they are built on some of the oldest platforms in the industry. The plant is known for its quality work and has operated for six days a week for most of the last nine years, but it’s not clear what its long-term future holds.
While the new contract solidifies Brampton’s footprint over the course of the agreement, it does little to provide clarity beyond that. Many workers who commented on the Facebook livestream of Unifor’s virtual news conference on Thursday were quick to point that out.
To be sure, those comments represent a very small sample size of Unifor membership in Brampton. And as anyone who has ever been online knows, people are more likely to complain on social media than to offer praise. But their long-term concerns are legitimate.
So, why doesn’t the contract include more for Brampton? Perhaps FCA’s pending merger with French automaker PSA Group has something to do with it. As Dziczek pointed out to me, we won’t know for quite a while what the North American footprint and product plans will be for Stellantis, the name of the combined company.
Then again, FCA did just commit to a massive investment in Windsor. Dias said the merger had no impact on the talks, but Dziczek said the company had to have “some kind of idea” what the Stellantis product plans were when committing to that investment.
So, union leadership will have its hands full in answering members’ questions come Sunday. They did during Ford ratification, too, and that vote ended in overwhelming support for deal they crafted.
Time will tell if they’ll have similar success getting FCA members on board.