At the conclusion of “Final Offer,” the groundbreaking documentary on the acrimonious 1984 contract talks between General Motors and the Canadian wing of the United Auto Workers (UAW), narrator Henry Ramer poses a question that haunts us still: “It remains to be seen ... whether workers ... will eventually have to pay a price; whether GM, confronted by traditional unionism, will continue to make massive investments in Canada; and whether Canadian autoworkers will now have to compete directly with their American brothers for jobs.”
Fast-forward to December 2019, just months before the next round of Detroit Three bargaining, and the answer to that question is painfully clear.
GM has steadily slashed its Canadian manufacturing footprint, cutting the number of hourly workers from 36,000 in 1984 to about 3,800 today and its vehicle assembly plants from five to one, now that production at Oshawa Assembly has ended.
The key dispute in the negotiations 35 years ago is relevant today: company demands to make lump-sum payments to employees versus traditional annual pay increases — a tussle that has punctuated Detroit Three bargaining since labour chief Bob White, fed up with taking marching orders from his U.S. counterparts, orchestrated the separation from the UAW to form the Canadian Auto Workers in 1985.
Back then, UAW President Owen Bieber lined up with GM over lump-sum payments and expected the Canadians to follow suit. Instead, they waged a 14-day strike that ended only after GM relented and agreed to a distinctly Canadian deal.
The 1984 talks set the stage for the divorce after White, director of the Canadian arm of the UAW, successfully preserved a principle that his successors continue to uphold.
In recent rounds of Detroit Three bargaining, Canadian labour leaders have steadfastly refused accept profit-sharing cheques over pay increases, a stand that has painted the union as militant and has been blamed for the unrelenting loss of auto jobs and plants.
But it’s a simplistic argument. The bigger culprits are free-trade agreements facilitating the industry’s shift to low-wage Mexico, as well as the end of the Auto Pact that compelled carmakers to build in Canada. The founding fathers of the CAW, which morphed six years ago into Unifor, could not have foreseen the end of policies that fostered the growth of Canada’s auto sector.
But the union’s refusal to bend has fueled the perception that Canada is an expensive and troublesome jurisdiction in which to build cars.
In one of the last scenes of “Final Offer,” thousands of autoworkers file into an Oshawa hockey arena hosting the local’s ratification vote. “It’s a helluva crowd, boys,” White says.
Sadly, the next ratification vote in Oshawa won’t be able fill the local union hall.