For the sake of the auto industry, we've put aside our differences

Frank Stronach and Buzz Hargrove chime in on the recent labour agreement between Magna and the CAW

Editor's note: The following article is a guest commentary by Frank Stronach and Buzz Hargrove. For complete news coverage of the Magna-Canadian Auto Workers deal, see the Nov. 5 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.

We come from opposite sides of the labour relations street: A manufacturing executive and a union leader. And we've had our share of battles and controversies over the years. Union drives. Legal appeals. Tough negotiations. Even a strike or two. But, in recent years, we've noticed there are a surprising number of issues on which we now see eye to eye.

We're both passionate about Canada. We both love autos. Not just to drive, but because of the immense economic and social benefits a healthy auto industry can generate. Yet, we both recognize that Canada's auto industry and our entire manufacturing base face a moment of truth. New challenges in global competition mean our industry must change, or else it will continue to wither away.

And we both agree that the best ace in Canada's automotive hand is our people. Our most valuable asset, as we find ways to evolve and survive, is the skill, the productivity and the work ethic of Canadian auto workers — matched with the knowledge and creativity of Canadian scientists, engineers and managers. If we are going to preserve this crucial industry in the face of globalization, a dollar at parity and climate change, then we need to leverage our “human advantage” to the greatest possible degree.

Which brings us to our announcement on Monday that we are turning a new page in our relationship. Magna and the Canadian Auto Workers union signed a 'framework of fairness' that will govern how we work together for many years to come.

Through this agreement, Magna accepts the CAW as a genuine partner, with a crucial role to safeguard the interests of Magna's workers as the company grows and changes. And the CAW accepts Magna's culture of “fair enterprise,” and the unique structures we've put in place over the years to make decisions and resolve concerns with maximum worker participation.

We think we are combining the best of both worlds: The best traditions of union protection and security and the best features of Magna's fair enterprise corporate culture. Indeed, economic studies have suggested that companies that pair union representation with extensive mechanisms for worker involvement and participation attain the best possible combination of high productivity and high morale.

Here's how it will work. Production workers at Magna's Canadian facilities will have the opportunity, in supervised secret-ballot votes, to consider a new labour contract and join the CAW. In facilities where a majority of the work force supports the union, the CAW will become the recognized bargaining agent and the employees will be covered by a new CAW-Magna national collective agreement.

Like a normal union contract, this new national agreement will continue to offer excellent provisions governing wages and benefits, hours and work rules, vacations and holidays, seniority and safety. But it will have several unprecedented features, too. Instead of union stewards,
“employee advocates” will work with “fairness committees” in each plant to make local decisions and resolve concerns. Instead of traditional grievances, a “concern resolution process” will give workers several avenues to pursue and resolve a concern. Instead of strikes and lockouts, unresolved contract matters will be referred for final-offer arbitration.

This is an experimental approach to labour relations. We believe it will enhance our shared effort to build a successful competitive industry, but in a manner that respects and invests in working people, their families and their communities.

Magna is Canada's largest automotive employer. The CAW is Canada's largest private-sector union. Both our organizations have demonstrated incredible innovation over the years, as we've evolved to perform our respective functions to the fullest. In our own ways, we've put a unique Canadian stamp on our auto industry: What we make, how we make it and how we share the fruits of what we've produced.

Our new system of labour relations, we believe, will also be uniquely Canadian — melding North American and European aspects, with a homegrown emphasis on fairness, mutual respect and hard work. We enter this new phase in our relationship optimistic that it will make a significant contribution to the future success of Canada's most important industry.

Frank Stronach is chairman of the board of Aurora, Ont.-based Magna International Inc. and Buzz Hargrove is president of the Toronto-based Canadian Auto Workers union.

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