Unifor puts Toyota workers in driver’s seat

Union opens non-bargaining local in certification drive

Unifor is changing lanes after a long and bumpy ride in its efforts to organize Toyota workers in Ontario.

A non-bargaining local will be set up for workers at Toyota’s Cambridge and Woodstock plants. The move — according to Unifor’s national president Jerry Dias — will show workers Unifor is about more than just bargaining.

"Our union is much more than just collective bargaining and I think that’s the key here," Dias said. "Collective bargaining is obviously so important to our union, but we also participate completely in the social fabric of the country. We play a major role in our communities."

By engaging workers in the union’s culture, Dias hopes to make gains with the workers who are unconvinced while maintaining engagement with those already on board.

"We’re already starting to treat these workers as members of Unifor," he said. "It’s a way of keeping our future members involved. It will keep everybody engaged. We’re already starting to integrate them into the culture of the union, so setting up a local is just the next step."

UAW forms local near VW plant

Unifor’s decision comes after the United Auto Workers (UAW) announced the formation of a non-bargaining local at the Volkswagen (VW) assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Following the loss of a contentious February vote the UAW announced the creation of Local 42, a new local union organized by VW employees through the German automaker’s "works council" approach to employee engagement.

"Local 42 will be run by, and for, the employees at Volkswagen," said Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer, in a statement.

"We’ve had ongoing discussions with VW and have arrived at a consensus with the company. Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of VW’s Chattanooga workforce, we’re confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members’ union that represents those employees who join the local."

Because VW employs a works council model in Europe, the company is not opposed to implementing a similar structure in the United States, potentially allowing the union to serve as a complement to plant management and maintain a position on the governing board. That recognition is dependent on the employees agreeing to name the UAW as their official bargaining unit.

According to A.J. Faria, however, this is no guarantee Unifor’s similar efforts with Toyota will be successful.

"Essentially, nothing has changed," said Faria, co-director of the Office of Automotive and Vehicle Research at the University of Windsor’s Odette School of Business.

Unifor still seeks to unionize all workers in Cambridge and Woodstock, and unlike VW, Toyota has given no indication it would compromise on a works council approach to representation.

"Obviously Unifor can set up a local branch wherever they would like, but it doesn’t change anything regarding Unifor representing the workforce at Toyota. They still need to get more than half of Toyota workers to vote in favour of union representation."

Unifor "temporarily" withdrew its request to represent workers at the Cambridge and Woodstock plants in April after the automaker informed the union it did not have sufficient numbers of signed membership cards to call a certification vote. More than 8,000 workers are employed by the two plants in the production of Toyota’s Corolla Sedan, RAV4, RX 350 and RX450h.

Another roadblock is the perceived difference in VW and Toyota’s attitudes regarding unionization.

"Toyota, clearly, is opposed to having Unifor represent their workers," Faria said. "Toyota has been very clear about that. They do not want to have to deal with any bargaining unit, be it Unifor or anyone else. Toyota is opposed to the union representation of their workers, so if their workforce does become unionized it’s anyone’s guess how that might affect Toyota’s future investment in Canada."

While Faria said it would be fair to speculate on unionization’s effect on any future investments in Canada, he sees no merit in arguments that union representation could lead to Toyota pulling out of Ontario.

"Certainly there is no chance that Toyota would pull out," he said. "Toyota has way too much invested in their plants in Cambridge and Woodstock. These are very efficient, well-operating plants. There’s no way Toyota would abandon those plants."

Personally, Faria said he doesn’t believe Unifor’s efforts to represent workers in Cambridge and Woodstock will have any effect on Toyota’s future plans in Canada. In fact, he thinks the future of any unionization truly rests in the hands of the company.

"To date, Toyota workers have rejected the idea of unionization because they’re perfectly happy with the way they’ve been treated by the company," Faria said. "If Toyota continues to keep their workforces happy, there’s a chance workers will never support unionization."

Dias, however, said strong voices within the company are calling for change.

"Our union is very much about fighting for jobs, very much about fighting for a strong auto sector in Canada. We want to make sure Toyota doesn’t maintain the power to unilaterally change working conditions, which is what they’re doing."

While the union is resigned to the long road ahead, Dias said he has all the confidence in the world about putting Toyota workers in the driver’s seat.

"They key to this whole initiative is that right from the beginning it’s been run from the inside," he said. "This thing has always been driven by people working within the plant."

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