Unifor is taking steps to deal with union members unhappy with the new contract with Ford Motor Co. of Canada F-N, holding special meetings and writing an open letter that the agreement stands even though a majority of skilled tradespeople voted against it.
The three-year collective bargaining agreement was ratified on the weekend by 54 per cent of Unifor’s 5,680 members at Ford, including full-time and part-time production workers, warehouse employees, and skilled trades workers – electricians, mechanics and welders. Most of the latter group that works at plants in Windsor and Oakville, Ont., voted against the contract, and say their concerns should have been addressed before ratification was announced.
However, Unifor said, “this does not change the overall ratification results, or the fact that three-year agreements are now in effect.”
The opposition from the skilled trades group – a well-organized and recognized faction within Unifor – has revealed a rift in Canada’s largest private-sector union, and surfaced long-standing tension among assembly line workers and the more trained – and paid – technicians.
“You’re seeing internal divisions playing out in quite a public fashion,” said Larry Savage, a labour studies professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.
The skilled-trades members point to a 1988 policy of the Canadian Auto Workers, which joined with Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada in 2013 to form Unifor. That policy said that if a majority of skilled trades members reject a deal for reasons that are specific to their group, the company and union negotiators must return to the table to attempt to address these concerns.
Unifor national chair of trades Dave Cassidy, in an e-mail to national president Lana Payne obtained by The Globe and Mail, said the weekend vote and the release of the results were held improperly.
The agreement’s announcement should have “been put on ice until the meetings of the skilled trades happened and then after the meetings transpired either a ratified agreement was announced or the trades headed back to the table to figure out” a resolution to their concerns, said Mr. Cassidy, whose sentiments were amplified on social media by unhappy members.
Mr. Cassidy is the head of Unifor Local 444 in Windsor and ran against Ms. Payne last year for the Unifor presidency. He did not respond to an e-mail and phone call requesting comment.
Ms. Payne said in a statement posted to the union’s website that the old CAW policy does not comply with Ontario labour laws nor the union’s constitution.
“The policy/practice cannot block the ratification of a new collective agreement, approved by the majority of members who cast ballots,” she said.
The union is holding meetings this week with skilled trades members to address their concerns, she said.
The contract provides wage increases of 10 per cent in the first year, and raises of 2 per cent and 3 per cent in the subsequent two years. Workers in the skilled trades will receive raises of an additional 2.75 per cent in year one of the contract and 2.5 per cent in year three.
By the final year, skilled trades workers will make $56 an hour, including cost-of-living top-ups, compared with $44.77 now. Production workers will make $44.50 an hour, up from $37 now. The contract with Ford forms the basis of demands Unifor presented to General Motors on Tuesday, and at the coming talks with Stellantis NV.
The skilled tradespeople say the pay increases do not make up for the concessions made over the past several years. Retirees and older workers say the pension provisions are weak.
In 2009, the Canadian Auto Workers union, a predecessor of Unifor, made several concessions to the Detroit Three to help the employers survive the financial crisis. Wages were unchanged, the Christmas bonus was eliminated and cuts were made to health benefits, on top of concessions that included layoffs, reduced pay for new employees, and an end to new car discounts and tuition reimbursements.
Prof. Savage said many of the electricians and other tradespeople at the Detroit Three feel they would be better off in their own union.
“There have been special efforts made to keep the peace and to make those members feel represented. This is a long-standing tension,” he said.
In an interview Tuesday, Ms. Payne acknowledged the dissatisfaction in some parts of the union.
“The reality is we have some members in the demographics such that they’re going to be retiring this year … three years from now. And so they’re really focused in on pensions. And there is a lot of expectation, right now, among our skilled trades groups, no doubt about it,” she said. “We’re working hard here to address all of the concerns.”