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Workers assemble cars at the Toyota plant in Cambridge, Ont.

KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Unifor union believes it is on the verge of a breakthrough that eluded its predecessor union for almost a quarter-century: signing up a majority of workers at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc.

The union, created by the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications Energy and Paperworkers union earlier this fall, plans to seek a vote at the Ontario Labour Relations Board early in 2014 that it hopes will certify the union as the bargaining agent for about 6,500 employees at two Toyota plants in Ontario.

The CAW has twice gone before the labour board seeking a vote only to withdraw its requests when it was clear that not even 40 per cent of Toyota workers had signed union cards, let alone the 50 per cent of employees plus one that is required for certification under Ontario labour laws.

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"Clearly there is a much greater level of interest this time around," said John Aman, head of organizing for Unifor, which also inherited from the CAW a union drive at Honda of Canada Mfg.

At Toyota it is trying to organize workers at plants in the Ontario cities of Cambridge, where the auto maker assembles Corolla, Matrix and Lexus RX350 models and Woodstock, which produces RAV4 crossovers.

Mr. Aman said the union has collected more than 3,000 union cards from a work force it believes to be between 6,500 and 7,000 strong.

"People like working there, they want a voice and a say in their working life," he said.

Among the key issues, he said, are the presence of a large number of workers on contract, who do not receive the same benefits as full-time employees and aren't eligible for pensions.

Pensions themselves are also a concern among workers, he said, because the auto maker recently instituted a defined contribution plan for newly hired employees, replacing the defined benefit plan for which all full-time employees once qualified.

The CAW and now Unifor, represents workers at all plants operated by the Detroit Three in Canada, including the General Motors Co. Cami plant in Ingersoll, Ont., a short drive along Highway 401 from Toyota's Woodstock factory.

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But neither the CAW nor its former parent, the United Auto Workers in the United States has been successful in organizing a wholly-owned factory opened by one of the Japan-based auto makers in North America.

Greig Mordue, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Canada, said the company has a history of hiring new employees on contract first, before they become full-time employees.

"That has been our practice for years," Mr. Mordue said in an e-mail response to questions. "We do that because when we hire people full-time we are making a long-term commitment to them in terms of their employment security."

In the past year, the company has hired 1,000 employees and made 900 contract workers permanent employees.

Since the auto maker began assembly vehicles in Canada in 1988 it has never laid off or locked out permanent employees and has offered a wage and benefit system competitive with that offered by the Canadian units of the Detroit Three, he said.

He said the company is maintaining its existing defined benefit pension plan for existing employees. Both the company and employees will contribute to the defined contribution plan for newly hired workers, he said.

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