Unifor auto talks: A quiet end to one of the year’s biggest labour clashes
By Ian Bickis
One of Canada’s most highly anticipated set of labour talks in years wrapped up last week, but there’s no victory parade planned.
Unifor’s marathon three months of high profile contact talks with the Detroit Three automakers — where gains and losses often set the tone for other industries — instead ended with a tepid 60 per cent vote of support from Stellantis production workers Monday, before the union quickly moved on to other labour fights in a year that’s been full of them.
“It seems like every week we have another strike deadline that we’re facing. This has been a very big bargaining year for us,” said Lana Payne, national president of Unifor in an interview.
But while the union has seen some 85,000 members at the bargaining table this year, expectations were especially high for the nearly 20,000 who work at Stellantis, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors.
After decades of concessions to the automakers, the combination of high frustration about the rising cost of labour and the record profits of the companies had combined to create what looked like a generational opportunity to claw back past losses.
“We told the automakers that the expectations were high, and nothing short of a historic collective agreement was going to get ratified in these moments,” said Payne.
The result was a deal that secured base wage gains for production workers of nearly 20 per cent, along with a long list of other improvements including to pensions, job security, a faster path to seniority, bonus pay and more vacation days.
The low approval rate at Stellantis, along with the 54 per cent vote in favour rate at Ford in late September, show just how high those expectations were among workers.
“The most fascinating part of this round of bargaining was the contrast between the relative strength of the pattern agreement, and the relative weakness of the ratification,” said Brock University Labour Studies professor Larry Savage.
“Workers aren’t content to tread water in the context of a cost-of-living crisis; they expect their unions to deliver more at the bargaining table.”
GM workers, heavily weighted toward recent hires at the Oshawa plant who will benefit the most from the faster route to senior pay, voted 84 per cent in favour. But older workers at other plants, some whom have lived through decade of belt-tightening and job losses, clearly wanted to make up more ground.
“I don’t think it’s that older generation of workers got a bad deal. It’s just that they remember what things used to be like,” said Savage.
The wage picture shows just how much things have changed. The starting rate for workers will go from the current $24.26 an hour $31.16 by the end of the contract for a notable 28 per cent jump.
But the starting rate in 2007 was $28.82, which is almost $41 in today’s dollars, said Tony Leah, a labour activist and retiree at the Oshawa local.
“They’re getting big increases only because of how badly they’ve been treated over the last 10 or 15 years,” said Leah.
The voting results also don’t reflect the voices of the thousands of union retirees like Leah, who made some of the biggest concessions in past bargaining rounds.
In 2007, for example, workers agreed to pensions that weren’t linked to inflation, and so haven’t seen a penny increase since.
This year, Unifor secured $800 a year in a `health-care allowance’ for those workers, but it’s not guaranteed long-term, and amounts to little more than a coffee a day, said Leah.
“There was a lot of anger from retirees because we had been told that pensions were the No. 1 demand.”
Return to the DB pension
Payne said the union made improvements on pensions across the board this year, including a shift back to defined benefit plans. She said the boost for retirees, the last concession they were able to squeeze out of Ford, is something they can build on, but that it’s also the area where companies are most resistant.
“When you go to bargaining table, the last thing, and the hardest thing to do, is to bargain improvements in pension plans.”
Given how far autoworkers wages and benefits had slipped, it was never going to be regained in one contract, said Peggy Nash, a past labour negotiator with the Canadian Auto Workers, Unifor’s predecessor.
“You can’t redress changes that have taken place over many, many years, all in one contract. Collective bargaining is always incremental” said Nash, who now heads the advisory committee at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Centre for Labour Management Relations.
There’s always the potential to push for more concessions, but negotiations are based on relationships, and at some point negotiators need to decide they’ve met their key demands.
“You just make a judgment call at a given point in time that you have bargained as much as you’re going to be able to get, without a significant amount of pain on both sides.”
Short strikes in Canada
Unifor did go on strike at GM and Stellantis after the companies resisted matching the terms agreed to at Ford, but they only lasted about as long as a shift before the union secured tentative agreements. It was a sharp contrast with the aggressive stance of the UAW which spent six weeks in escalating strikes.
The Canadian union faces the extra complication of making sure the American companies stay committed to Canada.
“It reflects the fact that the union in Canada wanted to walk tight rope between making significant gains at the bargaining table, without scaring the (Detroit Three) into pulling investments out of Canada,” said Savage.
Payne said the question of investments, especially as auto companies undergo the massive transformation to the electric vehicle future, is always close at hand.
“Every conversation I have with the CEOs of these companies is why they should be investing more in Canada.”
She said the union has set a template for other sectors, while also putting autoworkers back on the road to prosperity.
“We’ve achieved a lot here,” said Payne. “People will look back on this moment as kind of a turning point in terms of building the sector up, and having these jobs once again be the premium jobs in manufacturing in Canada.”
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