CAW willing to deal

Union proposes concessions as it fights to save jobs at Ford

To entice investment from Ford, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) said it’s willing to accept cheaper wages and flexible work terms at a proposed new plant — a departure from the pattern bargaining strategy that has long been the union’s hallmark.

The proposal, revealed last month in a report obtained by the press and later publicly acknowledged by the union, came in response to Ford’s announcement early this year that it was eliminating a shift at its St. Thomas, Ont., plant in 2007.

The job cuts were part of a massive reorganization that would see 14 assembly and parts plants close by 2012 and Ford’s North American workforce reduced by up to 30 per cent. The shift reduction at St. Thomas would mean an elimination of 1,200 jobs.

Two is better than one

The CAW’s proposal, called “St. Thomas Twinning,” would see Ford partner with an independent contractor, possibly Magna, to build and run a new plant next to the existing St. Thomas facility.

The proposal also sets out “unique contract provisions” for the unionized workers at the proposed plant, which reportedly include a six-year, no-strike contract and wages that start out at 75 per cent of the pay of the Big Three (Ford, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors), and move up to 100 per cent in six years.

The union also reportedly indicated it was willing to reduce the number of job classifications to two each for production employees and skilled tradespeople.

“As a union, we have to be much more aggressive now than we have been in the past,” said CAW president Buzz Hargrove in a press release. He was not available for an interview at press time.

“We want to make sure companies know that Canada is a favourable climate and we want government strongly on side,” said Hargrove.

Previous accommodations

Hargrove also noted the proposal does not represent a departure from the union’s tradition of bargaining the same contract with the Big Three. He referred to accommodations made in 1986 for a joint venture between GM and Suzuki at the CAMI plant in Ingersoll, Ont. Those accommodations centered on the use of Japanese-style workplace teams but, after a strike in 1992, the union reverted to traditional shop-floor relations.

Proposal not surprising

Robert Hickey, assistant professor at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., noted the irony in the fact the CAW was formed when the Canadian workers broke away from the United Auto Workers over concessions the American-based union was willing to make.

But given today’s pressures on the industry, the CAW’s proposal isn’t altogether surprising, he said.

“The latest round of negotiations and subsequent plant-level contract renegotiations have shown that the global competitive pressures are really forcing the CAW to re-evaluate its strategic bargaining positions,” said Hickey.

Ford’s announcement of radical cutbacks, coupled with its growing operations in Mexico, are troubling for unions on both sides of the border, he added.

The long-term implication of this proposal is now in question, particularly as to the viability of pattern bargaining, said Hickey.

“It certainly makes it very difficult to continue pattern bargaining if after every bargain, you have another round of negotiation that changes the original pattern,” he said. “What it does allow is to respond to the reality of the turmoil taking place in the auto sector.”

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