Dozens of auto workers gathered outside Unifor's head office in Toronto Nov. 3 to protest what they see as the union’s tacit support for mandatory vaccination policies introduced last month by Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.
Flanked by busy Highway 404, from which passing vehicles blared occasional support, the approximately 100 workers were demanding the freedom to choose whether to be vaccinated and calling on their union to get more aggressive in pushing back against the Detroit Three’s vaccine policies.
“Whether you want to get vaccinated or you don’t want to get vaccinated, this should just be a choice, not only for just the auto sector, but for every human being,” said Sebastian Giorgi, one of the rally’s organizers and a member of Local 1285 who works as an assembly worker.
Most of the demonstrators work at auto plants in Brampton, Oakville and Ingersoll, Ont., said Giorgi, a production operator at the Brampton Assembly Plant.
Though he is hoping the union can put a halt to the vaccine mandates, Giorgi said he is willing to lose his job over the issue if it comes to that.
“Not only am I throwing away a considerable amount of money, I’m throwing away a future.”
The policies at the three automakers will require all staff in Canada to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and could lead to the termination of those who refuse to get the shots. All three companies introduced their policy Oct. 14, but the timeline for implementation varies. GM’s mandate takes effect on Dec. 12, followed by Stellantis’ Dec. 17. Ford workers will need to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 3.
Unifor has said it supports vaccinate mandates, but insists all policies must be “reasonable and fair.”
Taking issue with several parts of each of the Detroit Three’s policies, the union initially called for the three automakers to pause the rollout of their mandates. When those requests went unheeded, several locals, backed by the national organization, said they were readying policy grievances.
In a letter to auto members last week, National President Jerry Dias said Unifor will continue to fight against employer policies that “breach the limits of what is reasonable,” but warned it could not guarantee how labour arbitrators would view the issue.
“For members who choose to remain unvaccinated, or who refuse to disclose their vaccination status, the result of any challenges to the employer policy is unknown and will fall to arbitrators for decisions on the reasonableness of the policy,” Dias said.
The union’s review of the Detroit Three policies is ongoing, Dias added, with issues such as the timelines, the mandates applying to Canadian but not U.S. plants and the low transmission rates at auto workplaces throughout the pandemic in focus.
This approach falls short for the union members outside Unifor’s headquarters Nov. 3.
“A lot of businesses elsewhere right now, they’re meeting their members halfway in the sense that you can do testing,” Giorgi said, adding the union should be fighting for the testing route or similar middle ground as opposed to accepting vaccine mandates.
Unifor estimates its auto membership’s vaccination rate tracks with the overall Ontario population, meaning roughly 11 per cent of those eligible are unvaccinated as of Nov. 3.