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Strike threat looms over Johnson Controls, GM plants

Workers at the General Motors Oshawa assembly plant Aug 22, 2013. About 200 workers make interior components for the Chevrolet Impala assembled in Oshawa.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The union representing workers at a Johnson Controls Inc. parts plant in Whitby, Ont., are threatening to go on strike this summer, shutting the assembly operations of General Motors Co. in neighbouring Oshawa in the process, unless the parts maker reverses its decision to close the parts factory.

About 200 workers make interior components for the Chevrolet Impala assembled in Oshawa, but Unifor president Jerry Dias said Wednesday that Johnson Controls intends to close the plant when the current labour contract expires in August.

"We're going to strike them – shut down General Motors and at some time or another somebody's going to come to their senses," Mr. Dias said in a telephone interview. "We made significant changes to our collective agreement three years ago to win the next generation of work. We won the next generation of work and we're keeping it."

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The potential dispute between the union and Johnson Controls is in response to a series of job cuts that may arise from changes at GM's operations in Oshawa, upon which several thousand jobs at auto parts makers in the region depend. The auto maker is shifting production of its Chevrolet Camaro muscle car to a plant in Michigan next year and plans to close one of its two Oshawa assembly plants in 2016.

The two plants produce the Buick Regal and Cadillac XTS, in addition to the two Chevrolet cars. Workers also install interior components and other parts on Chevrolet Equinox bodies that are shipped to Oshawa from GM's Cami Automotive Inc. assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ont.

Officials at Unifor local 222, which represents workers at both Johnson Controls and GM's Oshawa plants, fear that Lear Inc. seating operations and a Woodbridge Group foam plant that supplies Lear are also in danger.

"We at Lear are being told that under the current labour structure, the corporation does not see a future for us," Scott Bateman, chair of Unifor's Lear unit, said in the union's monthly newsletter in May.

A spokeswoman for Johnson Controls said it is company policy not to comment on labour negotiations. A spokeswoman for General Motors of Canada Ltd., said the auto maker will not comment on issues between the union and its suppliers. A Lear spokesman also would not comment.

Negotiations between Unifor and Johnson Controls on a new contract will begin late this month or early in July, Mr. Dias said. It is illegal for the union to go on strike until a contract expires.

Workers gave up some break time and agreed to the elimination of shift premiums and other changes during contract talks in 2011 when the company said then it needed to reduce hourly labour costs or it would move the business elsewhere.

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Those changes helped all-in labour costs by about $5 an hour to about $35 to $36 an hour, Mr. Dias said. Hourly wages are about $26 an hour.

He said he met with Johnson Controls officials in the Detroit area Tuesday and with GM officials two weeks ago in Warren, Mich. "GM can solve it right off the bat by telling Johnson Controls that they're leaving [the work] in our plant," he said.

He noted that the president of Johnson Controls was paid more than $18-million (U.S.) last year, but there is "no chance" that the union will agree to reduce costs so his salary can rise above $20-million.

"Our members haven't had a pay increase in years."

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