Unifor Targets Ford For New Contract

Negotiators representing auto workers in Canada say they are preparing to make the Ford Motor Co. target as the union prepares to discuss the transition to electric vehicles.

Joseph Szczesny

August 14, 2023

4 Min Read
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Unifor is targeting Ford for its contract talks. Pictured: Ford's Oakville Ontario plant.

Negotiators representing auto workers in Canada say they are preparing to make Ford Motor Co. their target as the union prepares to discuss the transition to electric vehicles demands for higher wages, income security and the need for larger pensions for both active and retired workers.

Lana Payne, national president for Unifor, the union representing more than 18,000 Canadian workers employed by Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, notes during a press conference in Toronto after formally opening bargaining with all three companies, that Ford is tentatively Unifor’s top target.

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“We look forward to working with our Unifor partners to build a competitive future that also recognizes our employees’ contributions to our shared success,” GM says in a statement after talks opened. Ford and Stellantis offered no immediate comment on the formal opening of negotiations at which Unifor presented its demands.

Payne (pictured, left) said the initial focus on Ford is because the company presents the best chance for setting the kind of pattern the union requires to meet both the current and future needs of its members.

“It’s a big strategic decision. And no final decision has been made,” Payne says. But Unifor is leaning towards setting the pattern for the 2023 contract with Ford. “That could change over the next month,” adds Payne. Unifor’s current agreements with Detroit’s automakers are set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on September 18, or shortly after the September 14 deadline for expiration of the three auto companies’ contracts with the United Auto Workers in the U.S.

Payne says Unifor has what she describes as “unfinished business” around Ford’s plans to begin building electric vehicles at the Ford plant in Oakville, Ontario. However, she adds, the existing agreement will serve as a “useful baseline” for new discussions with Ford’s management.

Ford has also displayed greater transparency about its EV plans than GM or Stellantis, and has shown a greater willingness to engage in a dialogue with Unifor’s representatives, according to Payne.

Ford is investing $1.4 billion in its Oakville Assembly Complex to transform it into a high-volume hub of electric vehicle manufacturing as part the company’s plan to scale production of electric vehicles, especially more affordably priced models than what the automaker offers today.

“Canada and the Oakville complex will play a vital role in our Ford+ transformation. It will be a modern, super-efficient, vertically integrated site for battery and vehicle assembly. I’m most excited for the world to see the incredible next-generation electric and fully digitally connected vehicles produced in Oakville,” according to Ford CEO Jim Farley.

Payne, who began her career as a union representative while working as a journalist, is using a different tone with Detroit’s carmakers than the UAW’s Shawn Fain in laying out the union’s demands. In contrast to Fain, she also says she prefers to keep part of the discussion with Detroit’s automaker’s private and behind closed doors to give sub-committees an opportunity to work out key details.

Like Fain, she emphasizes Unifor’s members expect a “substantial” pay increase, though she declined to say if it would be as much as the 40% demanded by the UAW chief. Relatively low wages for workers in the skilled trades have made it more difficult to find qualified recruits to fill jobs at Canadian plants, she says.

“Workers are pretty clear about their expectations,” adds Payne, noting her members are facing a rising cost of living while Detroit’s automakers are booking big profits.

Unifor, like the UAW, is also looking for significant improvements in pensions, and an end to tiered wages. Payne also notes that Detroit’s automaker’s make most of their profits in the U.S. and Canada.

Stellantis executives are generally keeping their head down after the UAW’s Fain renewed his attack on the French-Italian-American automaker in a new Facebook live appearance this week.

Fain literally tossed Stellantis initial contract proposal in a wastebasket. He also hit Mark Stewart, Stellantis chief operating officer, for being ten minutes late for a meeting with the UAW bargaining team.

Earlier this summer, Stellantis made a point of criticizing union members for absenteeism or being late for work and proposed a new and much stricter absenteeism policy in its contract proposal presented to the union this week.

Issues revolving around absenteeism in years past would have been resolved in committee behind closed doors are rarely debated publicly.

Fain, however, says Stewart’s casual approach to the meeting’s scheduled start underscores the company’s hypocrisy around the absenteeism issue and the double standard the company applies to hourly workers. He also criticized Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares for not bothering to show up for a face-to-face meeting with the UAW negotiators.

Payne has a different approach, but she notes she recently met with Fain and other UAW officials to discuss common issues both unions are facing.

“We have a good relationship with the UAW. We’ve made a commitment to keep good communications going forward. We want them to do well by their members,” Payne adds.

While it does not face the threat of plant closings, Unifor does want Detroit’s automakers to expand their footprint in Canada. “We think there are a lot of opportunities to expand along the supply chain in Canada,” Payne says.

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