The Auto Talks: Inside one of Canada’s most powerful union battles in history

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|August 25, 2023

Originally published in the Toronto Star August 25, 2023

The image is packed with power: one woman surrounded by a dozen men, striding toward the room in Toronto where the most important round of industrial negotiations in the country will be held.

The woman: Lana Payne, the first female president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, a 315,000 member workers’ organization that straddles every industrial sector of the economy.

The moment: First day of negotiations with the three Detroit automakers formerly called the Big Three, representing the oldest and most significant Unifor union-management “marriage.”

The stakes: Big expectations for better wages, benefits and security. What happens at these tables won’t stay at these tables.

These are the talks everyone’s watching, where the nation’s most traditionally powerful workers meet their makers. No, wait: they are the makers. And they know it.

After decades, a new economic moment

The backdrop to this round of negotiations is the tightest labour market conditions since the 1970s and more government and private sector investment than Canada’s auto sector has seen in generations. After decades of job losses and threats of manufacturing exodus, auto is growing its footprint in Canada.

The auto companies are viable, stable and profitable. The autoworkers union has renewed heft, momentum and leadership.

Within 24 hours of being elected president last August, Payne was fronting the union’s most ambitious auto sector strategy since Canada’s organized autoworkers broke away from the U.S.’s United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1985 to form the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) under then-president Bob White. (Unifor is the 2014 merger of CAW and CEP, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.)

By July, government and corporate investments in EV battery plants — which Payne helped secure — were reshaping the future of the industry in Canada. It recalled the slogan in Payne’s winning bid to head up the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour in 2008: No Payne, No Gain.

Until recently, there’s been only pain for autoworkers. Just a few years into Bob White’s 1978-1992 tenure, Detroit automakers’ market share began a long decline, eaten by competitors like Honda and Toyota, later joined by Nissan, Hyundai and Kia.

Then the global financial crisis hit, turning auto sector negotiations into one round of existential bargaining after the next.

Bargaining with a gun to your head

Former U.S. president Barack Obama, perhaps the most progressive and pro-worker president since Roosevelt, offered taxpayer support for the near-collapsing auto companies, but only if American workers made sacrifices, too. Stephen Harper, prime minister at the time, ultimately agreed to the same conditions.

Ken Lewenza, then-president of Canadian Auto Workers as the negotiations of 2008 turned into the negotiations of 2009, recalls being told to find $5-6 per hour in labour cost savings, matching what American workers had given up. “It was basically blackmail, by a democratic president,” he told me the other day. At the time, Lewenza’s bargaining team was representing the interests of 27,000 workers and 40,000 retirees.

Back in 2008, Canada’s autoworkers gave up $900 million in wages, pensions and benefits over three years. Little of these losses have been recouped because of what happened next.

The 2012 negotiations saw these car companies, with restored profitability but continually shrinking market share, demand even bigger cuts in labour costs from CAW’s 24,000 workers and 50,000 retirees, to offset the rising value of the Canadian dollar and conform with U.S. workers’ lower costs.

As former U.S. president Donald Trump shook the world in 2016, the Auto Pact withered and the Detroit Three accelerated investments in lower-wage jurisdictions. Unifor’s then-president, Jerry Dias, found himself negotiating for the very survival of the Canadian auto industry.

By 2020, bargaining took place amidst a global pandemic that saw the bottom fall out of demand, making it impossible to recoup workers’ losses.

The situation could not be more different today.

From negotiating sacrifice to negotiating a fair share

Today, Payne is negotiating for 18,000 autoworkers (more than 2,200 of whom are temporary workers, a growing phenomenon in this and so many other sectors) and about 50,500 retirees.

The union’s two main goals: address the erosion of wages in the wake of the biggest inflation surge in 40 years amidst the best profitability in years, and redress at least some of the sacrifices workers made in the wake of the 2008-09 global financial crisis.

While car companies went from near-death to near-record success, with Ford raking in $25 billion and GM $23 billion in gross profits at last count, workers still pay the price of concessions they made to prop their employers up during the financial crisis.

Expected next steps

Typically, this is what will happen next inside Canada’s most powerful set of private sector negotiations:

By Labour Day, if not before, the union will choose a lead auto company with whom it will negotiate. That’s when things shift from shadow boxing to getting into the ring.

The goal is a collective agreement by Sept. 18, the last deal-or-no-deal date before the union is in a strike position. If things go smoothly and the deal is ratified by members, the union will make that deal the foundation for negotiations with the next company, then the next, ending in about three months.

It’s not a rubber-stamp process. Every company has different dynamics and issues to work through. But the point of pattern bargaining is to make sure no company has unfair advantage or disadvantage in terms of labour costs. The results of these negotiations cascade into labour practices in non-unionized parts of the industry too, like at Honda and Toyota.

Even if the union gets everything it asks for, which is unlikely, there is no danger of a wage-price spiral. You may be surprised to learn that labour costs made up less than four per cent of the average ticket price of a Big Three car in 2016. Dealers made more per car than the people who made the cars.

Given profits are at levels not seen in years, and public and private investments are locked in, the union is no longer in a rear-guard fight. As Payne says, this is a moment that workers have been fighting for for 30 years or more.

Wild cards

While this is the best position that the union has been in for decades, there are always wild cards in collective bargaining. One is the possibility that union members might strike for a better deal than their leadership negotiates, as Metro’s grocery store workers and Vancouver’s port workers just demonstrated.

Another wild card is the fact that Canadian autoworkers are bargaining at the same time as U.S. autoworkers for the first time since 1999, a strategic choice by Unifor during the 2020 talks. The talks with the UAW could complicate, or even eclipse, negotiations here.

The 150,000 American union members stuck with dead-end, two-tiered wage grids are being told they can’t catch up to inflation, while CEOs have received an average 40 per cent increase in pay over the past four years. They may go on strike regardless of what the UAW negotiates.

That’s bargaining for you — the climate is as important as the numbers and, in this case, the momentum is working for workers on both fronts.

But let’s go back to the beginning, and give the last word to the confident, hopeful woman at the centre of that picture, the person who fully appreciates how empowered workers are feeling and what is riding on this turning-point moment:

“When we change the conditions of work, we can truly change the conditions of the world,” Payne said a few days ago. “It’s a fact that collective bargaining is the great equalizer for working people.”


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