Unifor President Lana Payne is not mincing words about the union’s intentions for Volkswagen Group’s planned battery cell manufacturing plant in St. Thomas, Ont.
For “the first time in a long time,” she told Automotive News Canada, Unifor will “get to expand the unionized footprint” in Canada’s auto sector.
“That is going to be our goal, I’m not going to sugar-coat it.”
Volkswagen’s in-house battery subsidiary PowerCo announced plans to build the $7 billion electric vehicle battery plant in the city midway between Toronto and Windsor on April 21. Construction will start next year, with the first battery cell scheduled to be produced in 2027.
By 2030, the new plant is expected to employ 3,000 staff, and the union will be doing “everything we can” to ensure those workers become Unifor members, Payne said.
Unifor represents about 22,000 hourly workers at Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Stellantis plants in Ontario, as well as about 17,000 workers at more than 100 parts suppliers across Ontario and Quebec.
And with unions currently experiencing what Payne has called an “organizing moment,” Unifor has recently brought workers at several parts plants into its fold, most notably about 600 staff at Windsor, Ont. seatbelt manufacturer TRQSS Inc. this January.
Yet despite years of trying, the union has made no headway organizing workers at two of the Canadian auto industry’s largest employers. Thousands of employees at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc.’s three plants in southwestern Ontario, and those at Honda of Canada Mfg.’s three-plant campus north of Toronto, remain non-unionized.
But Volkswagen takes a different approach to unions, Payne said, one she hopes will see management take an unobstructive stance.
“They have an important history working with unions,” she said, referencing the company’s highly unionized German and global operations. Volkswagen facilities also typically have independent work councils made up of both white- and blue-collar staff that tackle plant issues collectively.
But the most glaring exception to these company norms is the plant closest to St Thomas.
The United Auto Workers have twice attempted and twice failed to organize workers at the Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly Plant in Tennessee. The initial vote in 2014 was supported by management, but opposed by vocal third-parties in the overwhelmingly non-unionized U.S. South. The first union drive failed by three percentage points, and the second unionization vote failed in 2019 by an even slimmer margin.
Payne said anti-union campaigning, which involved elected Tennessee officials, won’t be repeated north of the border.
“That will not be happening in Canada, and it should not happen in Canada.”
Production at the St. Thomas plant remains years away, but Unifor has begun to hold early discussions about the site with its fellow unions in Germany, Payne said. It has not yet reached out to Volkswagen, but plans to “when ready.”
Ultimately, Payne said, the decision will come down to the future workers at the cell plant.
“The key here is we’re talking to the workers that are going to be hired there, and making sure that they see the benefits of being part of an auto union, part of our union, and part of being able to bargain their future working conditions.”