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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks in front of Ford of Canada production workers at the Oakville Assembly Plant Jan. 4, 2013. The Canadian Auto Workers is trying to organize plants belonging to Toyota and Honda in Ontario.


The Canadian Auto Workers union, facing steadily declining membership at the Detroit Three auto makers, has launched a new drive to organize about 7,000 workers at two Toyota Motor Corp. assembly plants in Ontario.

The drive at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc. plants in Cambridge, Ont., and Woodstock, Ont., has begun in the midst of an existing organizing effort at Honda of Canada Mfg., in Alliston, Ont., as the CAW seeks to offset the loss of tens of thousands of unionized jobs at the Canadian operations of the Detroit Three over the past decade.

If the union succeeds in its efforts at the two companies – it has failed repeatedly to organize either auto maker since the companies began producing vehicles in Canada in the 1980s – it will gain 11,000 new members and represent production workers at all five of the car companies that assemble vehicles in Ontario.

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Successful organizing drives would also increase the companies' fixed costs in Canada at a time when the high value of the Canadian dollar has already eroded their competitive position and both have warned employees that competing for vehicle programs with other North American plants is becoming tougher.

"I have never seen interest like this before [at Toyota]," said John Aman, the CAW's director of organizing. There is also strong interest among Honda's 4,000-member work force, Mr. Aman said, adding that "if one becomes unionized, the other one is going to follow suit very quickly."

Interest among employees was sparked by the union's success last September in fighting off demands by the Detroit Three for a permanent two-tier wage system at their Canadian operations and recent cost-cutting moves by Toyota, he said.

Base wage rates for full-time employees at each company are close to the $34 an hour CAW members earn at Detroit Three factories in Ontario, but as much as 10 per cent of those wages can come from bonuses that are based on attendance and profits.

Honda said in a memo to employees last year that it was forced to moderate increases in base wage rates.

"We continue to be at a disadvantage based on the value of the dollar," Honda vice-president Gilles Madore told employees. "We need to continue our efforts to strengthen our competitive position in relation to our sister Honda plants in the United States and elsewhere because we compete with them for production allocation."

Employees active in the organizing drives have expressed concern about what they believe is a high number of contract employees at each company. Neither company will reveal the breakdown between full-time employees who receive top wages and full benefits and the number of contract employees, who are paid as much as $10 an hour less and receive few or no benefits.

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The organizing drive at Toyota comes amid a major expansion at both its plants. The Woodstock factory, which makes RAV4 crossover utility vehicles has recently added 400 employees to boost production. The Cambridge plant will also add 400 people this year as it gears up to boost output of Lexus RX350 crossovers early in 2014. That's on top of record production of 519,215 vehicles at the two plants last year.

Toyota Motor Canada spokesman Greig Mordue said it is up to employees to decide whether they want to join the union.

"We don't believe one is necessary," Mr. Mordue said. "We have all the systems and processes in place to allow team members to have a voice and have some influence over their working lives. We have what we describe as a fully competitive wage and benefits package that reflects the unique needs of individual team members and the requirements of our employees."

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