For the first time in more than 20 years, autoworkers’ unions in the United States and Canada are simultaneously negotiating collective agreements with the “Big Three” automakers – Ford Motor Company, General Motors (GM) and Stellantis.
While the United Auto Workers (UAW) Stand Up Strike in the US has received global attention, in Canada, Unifor members ratified a three-year deal with Ford on September 24 — the first target in their pattern bargaining with the Big Three.
With a Ford deal in place, Unifor will now try to reproduce that agreement at GM and Stellantis (which owns Chrysler and Dodge). Unifor has just announced it has chosen GM as its next bargaining target, saying it will start talks this week on a new contract for 4300 workers at the company.
The Ford deal covers 5600 workers in Canada, mostly in Oakville and Windsor, Ontario. Windsor is my hometown, and I grew up in an autoworker family and worked for several years at the Chrysler plant there, so I have watched negotiations with great personal interest.
Unifor’s deal with Ford includes a wage rise of 15% over three years — the highest ever negotiated in bargaining with an automaker in Canada. The deal also changes the pay grid such that a newly-hired production worker will make CA$29.67 an hour and reach the top of the pay grid (CA$42.39 an hour) in four years instead of the current eight years.
The deal also includes a reactivated cost-of-living allowance, a CA$10,000 bonus, two new paid holidays, and improvements to the pension plan — a key point for retirees.
Support for the deal was quite low, relatively. Only 54% of Unifor members who voted endorsed the proposed collective agreement. Unifor has explained this by saying that this reflects rising expectations among workers in a context of growing cost of living and basic expenses in Canada.
The contract was reached ahead of a strike deadline, after Unifor’s bargaining committee extended the negotiations by 24 hours.
Green transition bargaining
This round of autoworker bargaining is particularly interesting for another reason. During the present round of Big Three negotiations, Unifor has raised the threat of strike action in its struggle for a just transition to electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing, along with more standard issues of wages and pensions. The union is pressing for secure, well-paid and climate-aware manufacturing jobs, after years of union caution.
Part of this is motivated by assumed necessity. The government has legislated that by 2035 automakers will be required legally to sell only zero-emission vehicles in Canada. Unifor sees this as an opportunity for jobs, but must ensure its members are not cut out in the transition and is seeking investments and commitments from employers to protect jobs.
Toward this end, Unifor has reported that in this deal, Ford has confirmed its commitments to transform the Oakville operation to an EV assembly plant with production expected to start in 2025. This includes “special (EV) transition measures” for Unifor members who could lose their jobs as changes are made to the Oakville assembly plant.
This is potentially significant, given that it moves past familiar “jobs versus the environment” framings that would pit industrial workers against environmentalists. Additionally, as with the transformations to workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic — especially automation — if green transitions are not driven by workers’ interests, they will be used to cut jobs and break unions in the interest of profits.
Workers must be at the forefront of green transition plans and actions. It remains to be seen how this will play out at Ford, but it bears watching, by labour movement and environmental activists alike.