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Ford's assembly plant in Oakville, Ont. on May 26.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Unifor has picked Ford Motor Co. F-N as its first bargaining target for new labour deals with the Detroit Three automakers, as the 18,000 workers the union represents at those companies seek stronger pensions, better wages and job security in an industry grappling with the transition to electric vehicles.

The union’s talks with Ford, General Motors GM-N and Stellantis STLA-N started on August 10. Last weekend, 99 per cent of Unifor members at the three companies voted in favour of going on strike if bargaining doesn’t secure agreements. The current collective agreement with Ford expires on Sept. 18.

Until an agreement is reached with Ford, bargaining with the other companies will pause. Whatever deal is struck with Ford is expected to set the pattern for the remaining two.

“To say that we will have challenging discussions in the weeks ahead is perhaps an understatement,” Lana Payne, Unifor’s national president, told a news conference Monday. “Because as we know this is shaping up to be a very difficult round of talks. That’s very clear.”

Unifor, one of Canada’s largest private-sector unions, represents 5,680 Ford workers in six manufacturing and distribution plants across the country, plus office and clerical workers in Ontario.

Unifor opens labour talks with Detroit Three automakers

The union chose Ford because the company’s Oakville, Ont. plant, which it announced in 2020 would transition to making electric vehicles, is set to begin renovations next year. Ms. Payne said the union believes this plant is at the centre of Ford’s electric ambitions in North America. And she said the company’s Windsor, Ont., operations produce parts needed for its most lucrative vehicles.

She added that the union’s Ford committees had made significant progress since Aug. 10.

“We hope to continue to build on this early momentum that we’ve achieved toward a strong final settlement for our members,” she said.

The transition to electric is worrying to union members because electric vehicles require fewer parts and less labour than gas-powered ones. Also, converting older plants into electric-vehicle manufacturing hubs means temporarily slowing down production, or stopping it altogether. For instance, Stellantis has said it will be closing down its Brampton, Ont., plant at the end of 2024, so it can be retooled and modernized for this purpose. The union wants to ensure that these closings are as short as possible.

Ms. Payne refused to offer details of the union’s wage demands when asked. Unions throughout North America have been bargaining for large wage hikes to offset the effects of two years of high inflation.

Unifor is demanding better pensions. As the automakers worked to fend off bankruptcy during the 2008-09 financial crisis, they began putting new workers on defined contribution plans, rather than the defined benefit plans given to earlier hires.

The bargaining coincides with United Auto Workers talks in the United States. That union, which represents about 150,000 workers, is pushing for a 40-per-cent wage hike.

The talks in the U.S. have been combative, with new UAW president Shawn Fain refusing the traditional handshake with company officials at the start of negotiations.

On Aug. 26, the UAW voted in favour of authorizing a strike, but workers have not yet walked out. Analysts estimate the chances of a strike at more than 50 per cent. Ms. Payne would not comment on how this might impact Unifor’s bargaining power.

“We are setting our own course, and we have our own strategy, and we have our own members to deliver for,” she said. “We have our own priorities here in Canada and we’re going to focus on those priorities.”

In a statement, Ford spokesperson Said Deep said the company is open to new approaches.

“Ford of Canada and Unifor have a long track record of productive collaboration,” Mr. Deep said. “For our industry, this is a time like no other and success requires us to adapt.”

Automakers and Canadian taxpayers have invested heavily in the transition to electric. This year, spurred by the need to compete with large new clean-energy subsidies in the U.S., the federal and Ontario governments committed up to $13-billion to a future Volkswagen electric-vehicle battery plant in St. Thomas, Ont.

The two levels of government also committed up to $15-billion to a battery plant being built in Windsor by Stellantis and LG Energy Solution, after the companies threatened to walk away from the project.

Canada’s auto industry employs 125,000 people, according to Statistics Canada. Of those, 37,000 are represented by Unifor – 18,000 at the Detroit Three and the rest at Magna International Inc. and Martinrea International Inc. The typical auto production worker made $38 an hour in 2022, according to Unifor.

With a report from Reuters

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Tickers mentioned in this story

Study and track financial data on any traded entity: click to open the full quote page. Data updated as of 19/04/24 7:00pm EDT.

SymbolName% changeLast
F-N
Ford Motor Company
+0.66%12.14
GM-N
General Motors Company
-0.16%42.37
STLA-N
Stellantis N.V.
+0.08%25.77

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