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Ford workers at the Oakville Assembly plant leave work on Sept. 8, 2020, in Oakville, Ont.Glenn LOWSON/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian union representing 17,000 Detroit Three auto workers says it has picked Ford Motor Co. as its strike target in negotiations for a new contract as it fights to save jobs at the company’s plant in Oakville, Ont.

Jerry Dias, head of Unifor, which represents 6,300 workers at Ford in Ontario, said the union selected the automaker as the main negotiating target because the company’s Oakville plant is “more vulnerable” to job losses. The plant employs about 4,600 hourly and salaried staff, and makes the Edge SUV and the related Lincoln Nautilus.

Mr. Dias said workers are set to strike by Sept. 21 if no agreement is reached.

“My biggest concern is the long-term commitment or lack of commitment at the Ford plant in Oakville,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday.

The talks come at a critical time for the Canadian auto sector, centred in Ontario. The Detroit-based automakers and their employees have suffered declining sales, employment and production as output shifts to lower-cost regions, including Mexico.

In a statement, Ford signalled its intention to reach a contract that will let it “remain operationally competitive amidst intense global competition. In light of global economic uncertainties, it’s more important than ever to maintain jobs in Canada. We’ll be asking our employees to work with us to help shape this new reality.”

Greig Mordue, a professor of manufacturing policy at McMaster University in Hamilton, said there are questions about the meaningfulness of any commitment to future production made by a manufacturer at the bargaining table, especially when the plant is in a country with high labour costs.

“Canada is in a very difficult spot for securing manufacturing mandates right now,” Prof Mordue said.

Top-quality auto manufacturing – once thought to be something that could only occur in developed countries – can take place anywhere in the world, said Prof. Mordue, who puts auto-making countries into three groups. There are those with home-grown industries, such as Germany, South Korea and the United States, which retain plants “by default”; low-cost places such as Mexico and Eastern Europe, which are proving capable and profitable places to make cars; “and then we have these places in the middle, like Canada, that don’t have a homegrown automaker, and they’re high cost.”

He noted previous auto investments by governments were quickly consumed by the high costs of Canadian production. “There is no appetite to spend a half-billion dollars on a car plant right now,” he said by phone. “Maybe there is, but it doesn’t last very long.”

Canada was the world’s No. 4 automaker in 1999, producing three million vehicles a year. By 2019, that number had slipped to 1.9 million. “And this year we will be building much less,” Mr. Dias told reporters. “We went from No. 4 in the world to No. 12. We have a huge problem in this country.”

The union also represents 4,100 workers at General Motors and 9,000 at Fiat Chrysler. Ford’s Ontario operations include the Oakville assembly plant and a power plant facility in Windsor.

Talks with the other automakers will follow the pattern set by the Ford negotiations.

In addition to securing a commitment from Ford for vehicle production, Unifor is seeking better wages and pensions, Mr. Dias said. “This set of negotiations is about changing, it’s about adapting, and it’s about ensuring we have a footprint for the long term,” he said.

Unifor would not provide details of its demands. Unionized production workers at Ford make $21 to $36 an hour, while skilled tradespeople are paid $42.

Unifor in 2016 picked GM as its strike target, securing a commitment to upgrade the assembly line at the Oshawa factory, only to watch the automaker end vehicle production and eliminate about 3,000 positions in 2019. The plant now makes parts and employs about 300 people.

Fiat Chrysler recently cut the third shift at its Windsor minivan assembly line, eliminating 1,500 jobs.

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