The simultaneous strike against the Detroit Three being considered by the Canadian Auto Workers would halt vehicle assembly in Canada immediately, but the union’s ability to extend the pain to the auto makers’ U.S. operations is not what it used to be.
The key weapons the CAW has to choke off production at the U.S. assembly plants operated by Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. are the companies’ engine, transmission and parts plants in Canada.
“I think they could weather a month,” Jeff Schuster, senior vice-president of consulting firm LMC Automotive in Troy, Mich., said of the Detroit Three. “Much longer than that, you start to have some issues and some concerns with some of the products.”
But the situation at Ford’s engine plants in Windsor paints a picture of how the transformation of the industry in the past decade has diminished the union’s leverage to expand the pain of a strike to U.S. plants.
The Windsor engine plants once supplied hundreds of thousands of V-8 and V-10 engines annually to power Ford’s pickup trucks and big sport utility vehicles. But the real estate crash and the surge in the price of gasoline in the second half of the 2000s led Ford to slash output of pickups and SUVs – the auto maker even spent billions of dollars to switch an SUV plant to compact car production.
So output at the company’s Windsor engine plant has dwindled drastically as contractors hung on to their pickups and Americans abandoned SUVs for the better gas mileage of crossovers. More than 40 per cent of buyers of Ford’s F-150 pickup this year have opted for a six-cylinder instead of a V-8.
Also in Windsor, the CAW once had the ability to choke off the supply of transmissions to several of GM’s U.S. assembly plants. GM’s Windsor transmission plant closed in 2010.
So the weapon of shutting down such plants is less powerful than it once was, but it’s a gun the union can still fire.
Chrysler has a casting plant in a Toronto suburb that supplies pistons and other engine parts to virtually all the company’s engine and assembly plants.
A GM engine plant in St. Catharines, Ont., is the sole source of aluminum engine blocks for the Chevrolet Corvette and GM’s full-sized Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks.
St. Catharines also supplies engines and transmissions to the auto maker’s Cami plant in Ingersoll, Ont., which makes one of the hottest-selling GM vehicles, the Chevrolet Equinox crossover. (Cami CAW workers are covered by a separate agreement and their contract is not up for renewal.)
Another factor in the companies’ ability to keep selling autos during a strike is their inventory levels of finished vehicles.
Those are a mixed bag, with a low, 25-day supply of Oshawa, Ont.-made Impalas at U.S. dealers’ lots, 27 days worth of Dodge Caravan minivans, which are made in Windsor, Ont., and on the longer end, 87 days worth of Chrysler 300 full-sized sedans out of Brampton, Ont.
One thing that is likely to give the CAW pause before pushing the button on a strike against one or all of the companies is that it could be a weapon of mass destruction that could doom long-term investment by the Detroit Three in Canada.
They appear more determined than ever to wring concessions out of their Canadian work forces.
“I do not see the companies making a major strategic retreat [from Canada] during this short agreement,” said Sean McAlinden, executive vice-president of research and chief economist of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a close observer of labour-management relations on both sides of the border. Mr. McAliden, noted, however, that “if the CAW avoids concessions this month but the companies don’t invest, the CAW loses big in the long run and Mexico and the UAW win.”
In the short-term, a strike at all three companies would slash two percentage points off Ontario’s economic growth during the month it occurs, said Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist of the Bank of Montreal.
Hee noted, however, that any loss could be made up through overtime later.