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An employee works on vehicle production at a conveyor belt at the FCA Brampton Assembly Plant in Ont., on Friday, July 21, 2023. Tijana Martin/ The Globe and MailTijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Unifor negotiators and the Detroit Three automakers kicked off contract talks on Thursday, as the union seeks three year-long deals that will boost wages, benefits and job security amid a switch to building electric vehicles.

The union that represents 18,000 workers presented representatives of Ford Motor Co. F-N, General Motors GM-N and Stellantis NV STLA-N with its opening demands at separate meetings on Thursday in Toronto, ahead of the Sept. 18 expiration of the existing collective agreements.

Lana Payne, Unifor national president, said the union is seeking better pay and pensions, income guarantees during assembly plant retooling and new investments at factories that make parts and vehicles.

“I made it clear we will be demanding substantial wage improvements,” Ms. Payne said at a press conference on Thursday, declining to say how much. “I made it very clear our members expectations are very high … and for good reason. Profits are up and so is the cost of living. They are prepared to fight and to strike if necessary to have their demands met.”

The talks come amid a backdrop of high inflation that followed major layoffs and supply chain snarls in the pandemic. Ms. Payne said, unlike in previous talks, there are no threats of auto plant closures, but workers are demanding better job security and pay after pandemic-related layoffs and major concessions dating back to the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Ms. Payne said the union is pushing to ensure the jobs in the EV world are well-paying union jobs.

The automakers say they are seeking agreements that will allow them to remain competitive as they spend billions of dollars to convert factories to electric auto production.

The automakers – and taxpayers – are investing in Ontario plants to make plug-in vehicles and batteries in moves aimed at reducing climate-changing pollution and complying with government sales quotas.

“This is a significant time in the industry as we make the transition to electrification, and we must approach negotiations with a vision for the future,” Stellantis said in a statement.

The automaker has announced investments of more than $8.6-billion in Canada over the past 18 months, and says it will add more than 3,000 jobs as it retools plants in Brampton and Windsor. Stellantis, whose brands include Dodge and Chrysler, recently won as much as $15-billion in Canadian taxpayer subsidies for its joint-venture battery plant in Windsor.

“We value our partnership with Unifor and have important work to do together as we create a blueprint for the Canadian automotive industry,” said Steven Majer, Ford of Canada’s vice-president of human resources. “Navigating this new landscape means collaborating on what it will take for Ford and Unifor to compete and win – finding the right balance between investing in our collective future and sharing the value we create together.”

Unifor typically names a strike target around Labour Day, and the contract reached with that company sets the pattern for the other two agreements. Ms. Payne said the union is “seriously considering” targeting Ford for intensive talks, given the company’s shift to making electric vehicles in Oakville, announced in 2020, is the closest to completion.

“When it comes to the transition, we have the clearest picture of what the Ford Oakville EV retool will look like,” she said, “and we think that provides us with a useful baseline on which to negotiate.”

A priority for Unifor is improving the pension plans. New hires are typically given membership in a defined contribution plan, which the union describes as inferior, while coverage has been frozen in defined benefit plans. Additionally, negotiators are demanding pay raises as inflation soars and auto sales rise. A typical production worker made $38 an hour in 2022, Unifor says.

Canadian auto plants assembled 1.2 million cars and trucks in 2022, down from two million in 2018. The industry, including parts makers, employs 125,000 people, according to Statistics Canada. Unifor represents 37,000 of these workers, including 20,000 at the Detroit Three, and the rest at parts makers that include Magna International Inc. and Martinrea International Inc.

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