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Unifor President Lana Payne is flanked by John D’Agnolo, left, and Shane Wark during a press conference announcing Ford as the target company for the current round of negotiations with Detroit Three during a press conference in Toronto, on Aug. 29.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Larry Savage is the chair of the department of labour studies at Brock University.

After decades of playing defence under threat of concessions and plant closures, Canada’s auto workers, represented by Unifor, have entered 2023 contract negotiations with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis with unprecedented bargaining leverage.

On Aug. 29, Unifor President Lana Payne announced the union had selected Ford as its strike target to set the pattern agreement in auto talks with the Detroit 3 auto makers. While Ford appears motivated to reach a speedily negotiated settlement, Unifor is coming to the bargaining table with renewed confidence and an ambitious set of proposals designed to make up for years of belt-tightening in the auto sector. Specifically, the union has prioritized pension improvements, wage increases, transition issues related to the shift to electric vehicle manufacturing, product commitments and plant investment guarantees in this round of bargaining.

The conditions are ripe for Unifor to make big gains at the bargaining table. Besides the tight labour market, which helps increase workers’ wages and bargaining power in general, there are several other key factors working in the union’s favour.

First, the Detroit 3 have posted record profits in recent years and invested billions to retool many of their Southern Ontario plants. As the auto sector undergoes an electric vehicle revolution, individual auto makers are looking for stability and labour peace to protect and increase their share of the lucrative and expanding EV market. A 40-day UAW strike in 2019 cost General Motors US$3.6-billion. That is an outcome auto makers will want to avoid in 2023. But even more concerning is the strategic concern that a labour dispute would allow competitors to expand their market share even more rapidly in a critical, transformative period for the sector.

Second, for the first time since 2008, Unifor’s U.S. counterpart, the United Auto Workers (UAW), is bargaining at the same time with the Detroit 3. While the UAW has yet to name a strike target, President Shawn Fain has not shied away from threatening a strike to force the Detroit 3 to address his own union’s bold demands, which include a 46-per-cent pay increase, a 32-hour work week with 40 hours of pay and the restoration of a defined-benefit pension plan.

Every union comes to the bargaining table with a combination of carrots and sticks, but it appears Mr. Fain is far more inclined than Ms. Payne to use the stick. He has made it clear that the UAW, under his leadership, will be more adversarial at the bargaining table. The UAW’s renewed level of militancy under Mr. Fain has a spillover benefit for Unifor. His credible use of the strike threat as leverage to get a deal indirectly benefits Unifor members because the North American auto sector is so highly integrated. In short, a strike in the U.S. would have significant impacts in Canada, and vice versa. Thus, the Detroit 3 will need to secure labour peace on both sides of the border, and that benefits Unifor.

Third, while Unifor’s leadership has not engaged in the same level of sabre rattling as Mr. Fain, in August Unifor members working at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis all voted between 98 and 99 per cent in favour of a strike mandate. While strong strike votes in the Canadian auto sector are routine, there are other signs Unifor members are becoming increasingly restless in the face of persistently high inflation and a growing affordability crisis. In recent months, four separate Unifor bargaining units voted down tentative agreements negotiated on their behalf that just a few years ago would have easily sailed through the ratification process. That kind of grassroots pushback is rare and signals that Unifor members expect their union to deliver more at the bargaining table. Raised expectations, in turn, increase the union’s bargaining position.

We should expect Unifor to rise to the occasion and capitalize on this unique window of opportunity by forcefully pressing its demands in negotiations with the Detroit 3. Such favourable bargaining conditions don’t come around very often and will undoubtedly provide the union with unprecedented leverage in auto talks.

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