Auto parts industry ripe for aggressive unions

Relentless union organizers in the automotive parts industry are making headway into some uncharted areas but some in the lucrative sector are still reluctant to let go of their anti-union traditions.

While the auto makers themselves have a strong percentage of unionization, automotive parts manufacturers have been able to keep the unions at bay, until now that is.

Both the unions and firms are pulling out some aggressive tactics to protect their interests, however, changes in the economy have created more favourable opportunities for unions to organize.

Ongoing cases at Magna International and Michelin, both point to some trends in the industry, particularly the fact that unions are making gains in the profitable auto making spin-off industries.

The auto parts industry has been feeling the squeeze as a result of a push to operate as a “just-in-time” economy, to become more efficient, more profitable, in addition to the effects of economic globalization. And, where once the line managers had time to take care of the “people issues,” employees are now becoming disenfranchised and disgruntled, and are looking outside the walls for support.

“What all these pieces lead to is a decrease in the time spent for employee relations. The net effect of all of this is that it creates opportunities for unions to make inroads,” said Lloyd Field, employee relations consultant and author of Unions Are Not Inevitable.

Magna International, the automotive parts giant, set aside its legal battles with the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) over a union drive at its Windsor car seat manufacturing plant — taken by some as a sign that the fiercely anti-union crusaders may be easing up the reigns.

Late last month Magna called off the year-long labour board challenge contesting 1999 voting results at the Integram Windsor Seating plant, where workers voted 317 to 285 in favour of the union after a highly publicized organizing campaign.

Instead, management said they want to negotiate “a mutually beneficial relationship” with the CAW.

While Magna has adamantly denied that they have accepted, let alone embraced the union, others say the move brings them a huge step closer to unionizing some 650 workers at the Windsor plant. Union officials and management have now begun to negotiate a first contract.

“We’ve been spending some time trying to develop a relationship with Magna but it’s been hit and miss,” said Hemi Mitic, senior CAW executive.

“After a great deal of discussion and consideration, that rather then go to the labour board and further separate the parties, we decided to work together.”

And, Mitic says management’s move to put aside the board hearing is a sure sign that it’s only time before the union is recognized.

“I would agree that (management) may not be saying it now, but once we have a collective agreement, that will certainly be the case,” said Mitic.

Some old corporate-defining policies are proving harder to tear down, as is the case with Michelin in Nova Scotia. Thirteen attempts to organize workers at three Michelin tire manufacturing plants in Nova Scotia in the last 30 years have all failed and votes are now being counted in this most recent drive. Keeping the company union-free has had a lot to do with a 23-year-old piece of legislation that has made it particularly hard for unions to get certification. The Nova Scotia labour legislation, dubbed the Michelin Bill, requires that a trade union must have majority support of workers at all of a company’s plants if that company has more than one plant in the province. In effect, the CAW must gain the support of some 3,000 eligible employees at all of Michelin’s three tire-making plants — in Bridgewater, Waterville and Granton — in order to be certified.

“It’s a most exceptional piece of legislation. Nobody talks about (the Michelin Bill) anymore. It’s just been a fact of life for so many years,” said industrial relations professor Judy Havian of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

The profitable Michelin has also been able to keep employees happy, with higher than average industry wages and employee-focused programs.

“The company has gone to great lengths to keep the union out. They’ve bought ads that have run on public television and when employees see (an anti-union) message in the media it really grips them. But for every employer who goes to that extent, there are unions who do the same,” said Havian.

This recent campaign, the CAW’s sixth attempt, has been most noteworthy because of the aggressiveness of both the union and the employer. In a last ditch effort to keep labour outside its walls, the “Michelin non-union group” took out a newspaper advertisement stating that the CAW donated $1-million to the Coalition for Gun Control. The ad was later retracted and an apology for printing “false and misleading information” was published.

“As the unions become more aggressive, I think it’s only reasonable to assume that management will find ways to respond in equally aggressive ways,” said Field.

Field, who works for some of the largest firms in Canada, cites two recent, unpublicized cases where unions hacked into company intranets and posted union propaganda.

The CAW has also had some support from one of the Big Three automakers, and one of Michelin’s major customers, DaimlerChrysler, which is considered to be a major gain for the union. In a letter sent to Michelin’s North American headquarters in SouthCarolina, DaimlerChrysler top executive wrote: “We expect our suppliers to treat employees in a fair and equitable manner, including respecting their right to decide whether or not to join a union in an atmosphere free of intimidation, interference, or risk of reprisal.”

While the perception is that DaimlerChrysler is putting pressure on Michelin, Field said the letter is ultimately neutral.

“When you read between the lines (the letter) is clearly not supporting the union. All they are doing is putting into day-to-day language what is in the preamble of every piece of provincial labour legislation in the country. It’s nothing more than doublespeak,” said Field.

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