Unionized skilled trades workers at Ford’s Oakville assembly plant and Windsor and Essex engine plants in Ontario voted to reject Unifor’s recent collective bargaining agreement with the automaker, according to union executives, putting Unifor in an awkward, but not unheard of position: dealing with worker concerns after the fact.
The union has not released a breakdown of how members voted Sept. 23 and 24, only that 54 per cent of all those who cast ballots approved of the deal, struck Sept. 19.
"The results of secret ballot ratification voting for all Unifor Locals confirmed a majority of Unifor members covered by the Unifor-Ford collective agreements voted in favour of new three-year agreements. This outcome is in full compliance with the Ontario Labour Relations Act and the Unifor Constitution. Collective bargaining with Ford is over, with new collective agreements in effect," Unifor President Lana Payne said in a statement to Automotive News Canada.
Payne then confirmed that "skilled trades members in Oakville and Windsor did not vote in favour of the agreement."
"This does not change the overall ratification results or alter the status of the agreements in effect," she said.
John D'Agnolo, president of Unifor Local 200 in Windsor, Ont., and chair of the union’s Ford master bargaining committee, said skilled trades members in Windsor said pensions weren’t bolstered enough and voted against the contract. He also said “there is a local issue in Oakville” among skilled trades workers.
“My understanding is we’ll take them to the side and try and get those issues resolved,” D’Agnolo said.
Payne said Unifor is meeting outside of the bargaining process with members in both Oakville and Windsor this week to review their issues.
An “issue in Oakville” is nothing new to the union, he said. Fifty-five per cent of members represented by Unifor Local 707 rejected a contract that received 58 per cent overall approval in 2016.
But a source within the union’s skilled trades leadership circle told Automotive News Canada that because skilled trades workers rejected the deal, the union had no right to deem the new deal “ratified” until outstanding issues were resolved.
The source said skilled trades workers at Oakville assembly took issue with “work ownership language.”
Unifor’s constitution does allow skilled trades workers to vote “on matters which relate exclusively to the skilled trades” in separate ratifications during collective bargaining.
The provision dates back to the 1980s under the former CAW and was designed to protect skilled trades workers because they are a small percentage of the work force.
Concerns are about wages, benefits or pensions are dismissed, but if skilled trades workers have issues with work ownership, job descriptions or the erosion of job classifications, the union and automaker must resolve the problems before the new contract could be considered ratified, the source said.
Members would not need to vote again on the contract because a majority approved the deal.
D’Agnolo said any issues in Oakville wouldn’t affect what was already passed.
“When we have a local issue we can’t just freeze an agreement,” he said.
Several high-ranking union members have officially raised the issue with Unifor President Lana Payne and other members of the bargaining committee, according to the source.
"Any reference in the union’s constitution to separate ratification by skilled trades members is intended to be limited and does not override statutory requirements for a single ratification vote by all members in the bargaining unit," Payne said. "There is no right by which skilled trades members can block a ratification by the whole bargaining unit."
Satnam Khatkar, skilled trades chairperson at Local 707 in Oakville, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Payne previously said the Unifor bargaining team pushed Ford on every front to secure a contract that will "change lives in a profound way."
"It fundamentally transforms pension plans, provides protections during the EV transition and includes the highest wage increases in the history of Canadian auto bargaining," she said in a statement.
Hourly wages for workers with four or more years at the automaker rose 13.6 per cent following ratification of the deal. Longtime workers began earning $42.39 per hour on Sept. 25, up from $37.33. The new wage includes a $1.21 an hour cost-of-living allowance fold-in that will run for the length of the deal.
Along with an immediate 10-per-cent general wage increase, applied after the cost-of-living allowance fold-in, there’s a two-per-cent wage hike at the beginning of the second year of the contract and three per cent at the start of the third year.
During the third year, top-end production pay will hit $44.52 an hour, 19 per cent higher than under the previous contract.
Skilled trades employees will receive a 2.75-per-cent raise in year one — which is on top of the 10-per-cent general wage increase — and 2.5-per-cent increase in year three, after the three-per-cent general wage increase.
On pensions, members currently on defined contribution (DC) pension plans will be switched over to superior defined benefits (DB) plans starting Jan. 1, 2025.
The low ratification results weren’t what D'Agnolo was hoping for.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I was hoping to see higher [approval] numbers for sure, but unfortunately, that wasn't the case,” he said. “But when you're in front of a bargaining table, you're focused on everybody. And this was the case here. We had to make sure that we had huge improvements for those low-seniority workers because the cost of living has gone through the roof.”
Unifor is bargaining at the same as the United Auto Workers for Detroit Three workers in the United States and workers at numerous plants are on strike.
D’Agnolo said the hardline rhetoric from UAW President Shawn Fain — he first sought a wage increase as high as 46 per cent — has inflated the expectations of the Canadian workforce.
“[Unifor members] are looking at what the UAW was looking for, but they weren't looking at the comparables,” said D’Agnolo, add that some members were demanding a 24 per cent pay increase, before cost-of-living allowance and the signing bonus.
D’Agnolo said UAW workers start as temporary workers, making US $15.82 an hour, before they move into the full-time, grow-in paid scale.
“A 20-per-cent increase just in the first year — if they get it, and I hope they do — won't even give them US $20 an hour. So I think when [Unifor members] were looking at what the UAW was asking for, a lot of people didn't know what they made.
“And I think if they looked at that that way, they would have said something different, but they didn't compare.
“Across the board, this is a good contract.”
D’Agnolo said “most” of the skilled trades workers he represents can retire “within the next few years,” so pension was their priority.