Unifor President Jerry Dias had upcoming contract talks with the Detroit Three on his mind when he received disturbing news about Ford’s sole assembly plant in Canada.
It was June, and a U.S.-based forecasting firm was warning that the facility in Oakville, Ont., would not build the next generation Edge crossover and faced possible closure by 2023. The news was first reported by Automotive News Canada.
Dias made a flurry of phone calls to Ford executives in Canada and the United States who did not deny the report. He then called Navdeep Bains, federal economic development minister.
Dias urged Bains to “get on the phone and call all three of the Detroit Three and say that you’ve got the money to invest” in new product.
It was a critical moment in a series of unlikely events spanning months of pandemic-fueled turmoil for the auto industry, ending with Ford choosing Oakville for a $1.8-billion investment for electric-vehicle production.
The cast of key players included the federal and provincial governments, led by fierce political rivals, who forged a once-unthinkable partnership by working closely together during the pandemic, setting the stage for $590 million in combined support for the investment.
Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Farley, named to the position over the summer, joined other top executives in Michigan and became actively involved in finding a solution for the Oakville plant.
Unifor, sensing that Canada was running out of time to secure much-needed investments in future vehicle technology, rolled the dice and pushed for EV production.
In the end, Ford would choose to invest in Oakville instead of Mexico, as was originally its plan, according to the federal and provincial governments.
“This is exactly the kind of investment we’ve been looking for for years,” said Vic Fedeli, Ontario minister of economic development, job creation and trade.
It was a major win for the Canadian auto industry which had been in decline for years. According to the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, Canada in 1999 was the fifth-largest automotive manufacturer in the world by production volume, with 3.06 million vehicles produced. By 2019, it produced 1.92 million vehicles, ranking it 12th globally.
In fact, news of Oakville’s potential demise might have helped to save the plant and the jobs of more than 3,000 hourly employees.
Dias said learning of Ford’s plans for the Edge months before Detroit Three contract talks were to formally begin was the union’s big “break” in negotiations. It gave labour and the federal and provincial governments ample time to seek a solution with company executives by the Sept. 21 expiration date of Unifor’s contract with Ford.
A shorter lead time “would have made it a lot more difficult, based off having a shorter runway,” Dias said.
TORONTO AUTO SHOW