The Unifor leader who represents about 4,800 auto workers at Stellantis STLA-N NV’s Windsor, Ont., assembly plant says the agreement narrowly approved last month by Ford Motor Co. F-N of Canada employees is not good enough to serve as a template for his own group’s negotiations.
Dave Cassidy, who is also chairman of Unifor’s skilled-trades group, said in an interview that he will fight to win better wages and pensions for his members when bargaining starts this month. He vowed to depart from the union’s tradition of using earlier deals as precedents with automakers.
In September, more than 5,600 Unifor members at Ford ratified a collective agreement that raised pay by almost 20 per cent over three years.
Unifor, which represents workers at Ford, Stellantis and General Motors Co. GM-N, traditionally uses the first contract reached as a template, or pattern, for talks with the other two Detroit-based carmakers. But the Ford deal’s support of just 54 per cent in the ratification vote signals widespread dissatisfaction among workers. The deal was opposed by a majority of electricians, welders and others in the skilled-trades group.
“There are a lot of very angry members feeling that we fell short with the pattern,” Mr. Cassidy said.
The talks with the Detroit Three in Canada coincide with limited but widening strikes by the United Auto Workers against the three automakers in the United States.
Workers say they deserve more in pay and benefits after years of making concessions to keep automakers afloat, first in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and later during three years of pandemic layoffs. At a time of high inflation, automakers are posting robust sales and profits.
Unifor began bargaining last week with General Motors, which employs 5,780 members in Oshawa, Ingersoll, St. Catharines and Woodstock, Ont. Negotiations will begin with Stellantis after GM workers ratify their agreement.
“It don’t ratify without me,” said Mr. Cassidy, who is president of Unifor Local 444. He is one of 60 Unifor officials on the bargaining team, and, as skilled-trades chairman, speaks on behalf of about 50,000 skilled tradespeople at employers across Canada.
Steven Tufts, an associate professor at York University who studies organized labour, said Mr. Cassidy’s comments are significant, and signal the auto talks are in “interesting waters.”
“Once the pattern is set it’s very difficult to break it,” Dr. Tufts said. “Unifor doesn’t want to go below what Ford settled for and GM is not going to want to go much higher,” he said, adding that Stellantis would likely be the same.
A Unifor spokesperson was not available for comment on Monday.
Larry Savage, a labour studies professor at Brock University, said Unifor’s talks with GM and Stellantis face pitfalls on two fronts. First, if the UAW in the U.S. reaches deals that are perceived as being better than Unifor’s pattern agreement, union leadership will face even more dissatisfaction in its ranks.
Second, he said, is that “the skilled-trades revolt at Ford will likely spill over into GM and Stellantis bargaining.” Prof. Savage predicted the pattern agreement will face fewer hurdles with GM’s work force, which is younger and less worried about pensions than those at Ford and Stellantis.
The real battle for Unifor and its national president, Lana Payne, is at Stellantis. Prof. Savage said that in addition to bargaining with the company, Ms. Payne will be forced to contend with the influence of Mr. Cassidy.
“Given his power base in Windsor, that makes the prospect of a ratified agreement that matches the pattern less certain,” Prof. Savage said.
Stellantis employs a total of 8,230 Unifor workers in Canada. In addition to its plant in Windsor, where it makes minivans, it has a muscle-car factory in Brampton, Ont.; a parts factory in Toronto; and warehouses and offices in Southern Ontario and Red Deer, Alta.
Mr. Cassidy has been meeting with unhappy Stellantis auto workers since the Ford ratification, including 600 of them on Sunday. In addition to opposition from skilled-trades workers, the contract faced resistance from many older workers unhappy with the amounts by which pensions increased.
Mr. Cassidy said Unifor broke a union rule when it announced the Ford ratification without first addressing the majority opposition from the skilled-trades workers. He said skilled-trades and production employees have held separate ballots since the mid-1980s. If the skilled-trades group opposes a contract for reasons that are specific to their work, the union has in the past tried to address their concerns, including by returning to the table with the employer.
The process was adopted by Unifor when it formed in 2013 out of a merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, he said.
Mr. Cassidy said he has learned that the objections from the skilled tradespeople are not specific to their work and would not spur a return to the table. Still, he said, the union should have met with them.
Members are unhappy, he added, and he fears the union has been harmed in the process. “People lose faith,” Mr. Cassidy said.
Unifor’s Ms. Payne said last week that the separate-ballot rule is not part of the union constitution and does not comply with Ontario labour law.