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CAW National President Ken Lewenza speaks at the Canadian Automotive Workers' First Constitutional and Collective Bargaining Convention in Toronto on Monday, August 20, 2012.


The Canadian Auto Workers union is turning up the pressure in contract talks with the Detroit Three auto makers, saying it is prepared to go on strike against all of them at the same time if no deal is reached by the Sept. 17 deadline.

"The corporations are refusing to add any costs whatsoever – instead they insist on cutting costs from our existing agreements," the CAW said in a leaflet distributed Wednesday at Canadian plants operated by Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.

"None of the three companies have demonstrated that they are serious about reaching an agreement."

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The common message from the companies is that anything that increases wages or costs – such as signing bonuses – must be offset by cost reductions in other parts of the agreement, the leaflet said, adding that the positions taken by the companies show a "co-ordinated effort" to hold the line.

The tone of the leaflet and the union's threat to take the unprecedented step of going on strike against all three auto makers at once indicates how firmly the companies are holding to their position that hourly labour costs at their Canadian plants must be reduced to match the wages and benefits the companies offer unionized workers at their U.S. plants.

"The common denominator has been that they have all been very aggressive," said Peter Kennedy, the union's secretary-treasurer.

"It's not just a question of dealing with fixed costs, which we understand. To varying degrees, they're all looking for more – more cuts, deeper cuts."

At least one of the companies disputed they are taking a co-ordinated stand against the union.

"Chrysler, Ford and GM have always had general discussions about common issues, however, each of the companies has unique business issues that need to be addressed individually," LouAnn Gosselin, a spokeswoman for Chrysler, said in an e-mail.

Further, the company proposals currently on the table are not identical, said one union source involved in the talks.

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The CAW leaflet was issued 12 days before the strike deadline. It comes at a time during bargaining when the CAW is normally identifying a so-called target company with which it negotiates an agreement that then serves as a template for the other two companies. It has followed this negotiating model for decades.

But the union has not yet identified a target company as it tries to push all three to step back from demands that CAW president Ken Lewenza has described as more in keeping with companies that need to restructure than companies that are generating profits.

A union source familiar with the Chrysler talks said the company is insisting the CAW match the two-tiered contract it has with the United Auto Workers, which pays newly hired employees $15.78 (U.S.) an hour, or about half as much as longer-term employees are paid. The $15.78 will rise to $19.28 by the end of the UAW contract in 2015.

Chrysler has no employees on layoff in Canada and has the potential to add a third shift at its Brampton, Ont., assembly plant. That means it would benefit more from a two-tiered agreement than Ford or GM, neither of which is likely to be in a position to hire new employees for the next few years.

Spokeswomen for Ford and GM said they remain confident they can reach an agreement with the CAW that improves their competitive position in Canada.

The union has never engaged in a strike with all three companies simultaneously. The last strike against any of the Detroit Three came in 1996, when the union walked out after GM refused to meet the pattern established at other companies.

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Mr. Lewenza said earlier this week that among the companies' demands are increased employee contributions to health-care expenses and elimination of a clause permitting people with 30 years' experience to retire with full pensions.

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More


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