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The Globe and Mail

Lear locked in labour negotiations as GM deadlines loom

At Lear Corp., there are 350 workers and 50 employees currently on layoff because the company is making seats for GM vehicles with a doubtful future later this decade.


Workers at a Lear Corp. automotive seat-making plant in Whitby, Ont., are battling to save their jobs amid demands by the company that hourly labour costs be reduced by 40 per cent.

About 350 workers at the plant, who make seats for General Motors Co. vehicles assembled in nearby Oshawa, Ont., have been on the job without a contract since Feb. 28 while negotiations continue with Lear on a new labour agreement.

Lear has tabled a proposal that would reduce hourly labour costs to $30 from $52, said Scott Bateman, chair of the Lear unit of Unifor Local 222, which represents the workers.

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"That includes benefits, wages, pension, everything," Mr. Bateman said, including shifting some employees from full-time work for which they are paid $28.05 an hour, to part-time work at $15 an hour.

It's a crucial set of negotiations for the 350 workers and 50 employees on layoff because the seats they are making now are for GM vehicles with a doubtful future later this decade.

But the prospect of making the seats for the pickup trucks GM is scheduled to begin turning out in Oshawa later this year would brighten the picture considerably.

Lear manufactures the seats for GM's full-sized pickups that are assembled at U.S. plants, including Fort Wayne, Ind., which will ship frames to the auto maker's Oshawa plant.

Workers in Oshawa will do final assembly, including the installation of seats.

Union negotiators were told by Lear that the Whitby facility would be allocated the seats for Oshawa if they agreed to the concessions, Mr. Bateman said.

The union will not agree to the concessions, but has offered to convert its existing defined-benefit pension plan to a defined-contribution plan, "which is a pretty bold move," he said.

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It goes further than a concession on pensions Unifor agreed to last year in contract negotiations with the Detroit Three auto makers, including GM.

The union agreed to change a combined defined-benefit-defined-contribution plan for newly hired employees to a defined-contribution plan only. But the existing defined-benefit plan would continue for employees who started work at the companies before 2012.

The offer to Lear would mean all unionized employees at the company would give up their defined-benefit plan.

Lear spokesman Mel Stephens said the Southfield, Mich.-based company does not comment on negotiations.

Mr. Bateman said workers could have gone on strike Feb. 28 but a strike would mean shutting down GM's Oshawa plant.

"We understand the sensitivity of this," he said. "It's easy to close a plant; it's hard to keep it open."

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Negotiations are scheduled to resume later this month.

Whitby workers have not had a wage increase since 2008. They received a cost-of-living adjustment last year for the first time since 2008.

The seats made at Whitby go into the Buick Regal, Cadillac XTS and Chevrolet Impala models.

Regal production is scheduled to end later this year, but GM agreed last fall to a minor redesign of the XTS and to extend Impala production in order to meet the union's key demand that the Oshawa assembly plant remain open.

Making the seats for the pickup would provide secure work for employees now on the job and bring back some employees on layoff, Mr. Bateman said.

General Motors of Canada Ltd. president Stephen Carlisle has confirmed that the plant will build a pickup truck, but has not confirmed which U.S. facility will produce the bodies and frames that will be finished in Oshawa. He also has not identified what model will be built.

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