Canadian auto workers at Ford Motor Co. are getting a new contract that will change their lives, Lana Payne, president of Unifor National, told the Detroit Free Press on Thursday.
Although she didn’t go into detail, Payne pointed to successes in areas such as pensions, wages and job security, to name a few.
Unifor, the union that represents Canada’s auto workers, reached a tentative agreement with Ford late Tuesday night. The union will present the details of the agreement early Saturday to Ford’s 5,600 members, who will then vote electronically on ratification. The results come on Sunday and if it is ratified, Payne will name a second target company – General Motors or Stellantis – by Sunday or Monday and begin negotiations with one of them, using the Ford contract as a template for the model negotiations.
For now, Payne is watching the UAW closely. She is committed to ensuring that they achieve the same gains as Canadian autoworkers without having to declare a broader and longer strike. The UAW is currently on strike at three plants, one at each automaker.
“I really admire the fight the UAW is currently fighting. She inspires workers everywhere,” Payne said.
But UAW President Shawn Fain will announce via Facebook Live at 10 a.m. Friday whether significant progress has been made at any of the Detroit Three or whether additional plants will be targeted by a strike. Payne, who has been in regular contact with Fain, will be watching closely as an extended strike will impact Canada.
“There is no doubt that a broader dispute arising from the integration of the Canadian and U.S. automotive industries will and could have an impact on some of our Canadian plants and on some of our auto parts jobs,” Payne said.
But she said unions now had a “moment” in their fight for workers’ rights and they must seize it. Payne spoke at length with the Free Press on Thursday and here are her thoughts on various topics, edited for space reasons.
Question: Can you provide details of the tentative agreement with Ford?
Answer: Our members will see it first. That’s how we do things and we won’t deviate from it.
Q: How would you characterize the agreement?
A: It is a very comprehensive package and we want to ensure that our members get everything and not parts of it are published in the media. We are getting our key people from many of our locals who will take care of it tomorrow.
Q: What areas have you made progress in?
A: What we have to present to our members is quite extensive. I would say that we have made significant progress in all the key areas that we brought to the negotiating table: pensions, wages, (electric vehicle) conversion and investments, as well as many other improvements in social benefits and health benefits. This is important in view of the progress made.
You use collective bargaining wherever you can to change people’s lives and advance workers, and this agreement does that. There are significant improvements in it.
Q: Why is this interim agreement so important?
A: We recognize the moment we were in. There is no doubt that there is a moment happening right now, and we have seen it at many bargaining tables, where workers are ready to fight, and employers know it. We live in an economic climate that is particularly difficult for working people. Whether in Canada, we’ve described it as an affordability crisis because everything from the cost of living to inflation to interest rates determines a lot of what happens that spills over at the bargaining table.
When you take that into account in addition to what has been a period of historic profits for many companies, not just automakers, this is the case in many sectors of the economy. Our members and employees know that this imbalance has arisen.
Q: So this was an opportune time to make big economic gains?
A: Because you’re seeing the cost of living rising so much, these important economic discussions at the bargaining table are what’s driving this. That’s why we need to be able to use moments like this to develop collective bargaining agreements for the members we have today and for the next generation of workers. We don’t always get such a window in collective bargaining. So when you get one, you must try to grab it.
Q: Describe the intensity of the negotiations
A: From the union’s perspective, you’re talking about dozens and dozens of people involved in these negotiations, and they all knew what they had to do, and they knew that the expectations of our members were high. With that comes a lot of responsibility, and they have felt the weight of that responsibility.
Q: How close was it to attacking Ford?
A: All of this, in my view, led to a truly extraordinary round of collective bargaining that went all the way to the end, and we really pushed Ford Motor Co. hard. We had a significant strike mandate from our membership in all of the Detroit Three. It was clear that they had to deliver something significant or there would have been a strike.
Shortly before midnight we had a considerable offer. We knew it wasn’t where we needed it, but we decided to give it another 24 hours to see if we could get the contract we knew was necessary to get to our members to make sure it met the core priorities they were proposing. We managed to get there.
Q: You faced some of the same problems as the UAW. What were your challenges when processing the contract and how did you overcome them?
A: We’re rooting for (the UAW) hard here in Canada. We want you to be able to conclude a fair collective agreement for your membership. I know they are working very hard on it. I have had many conversations with President Fain. We had similar but different priorities.
We focused on pensions because our members had not experienced a pension increase since 2007 and in some cases even 2005, depending on which pension plan they were in. This has been identified as a key priority by our members. Wages matter to everyone right now, not just autoworkers. That’s a priority for every Unifor table right now, so there was that.
We invested a lot of time in switching to electric vehicles; it was very important to us. We have the Ford Oakville plant that’s about to be converted and we had a lot to figure out about that. We wanted to ensure we negotiated strong income protection measures for our members during the transition. There were many things we needed to clarify related to ownership of the work. So there were many levels to these negotiations that made them different from the norm.
Q: The UAW is seeking a 40% hourly wage increase over the life of the contract. Were you able to achieve a double-digit percentage increase?
A: I won’t share this, these are the details our members will know first. But I’m very happy with where it ended up.
Q: Members are probably dying to know.
A: Oh yes, they really want to know. Our employees are currently busy putting together all the brochures and cards. A lot of work goes into ensuring our members understand the entire agreement and any improvements.
Q: How did your negotiations differ from those of the UAW?
A: They see an opportunity here to really make up for lost ground. We saw that too. The difference is that we ran a sampling process that targeted only one company. As far as we are concerned, we did this for several reasons; We saw progress with Ford Motor Co. in the first week because we negotiated with all three.
We also had the whole idea of transitioning to electric vehicles and making sure we could provide protection for our members over that period, and that was a key focus in those negotiations with Ford. They happened to have one of the facilities that was going through that transition. We knew this had to get done and we had to get it right.
Q: If it’s ratified, will you stand next to GM or Stellantis?
A: We haven’t announced the next destination yet. This is currently being examined. We will start negotiations immediately, so our intention will be to announce the target very quickly after ratification and we will start negotiations next week.
Q: Will you stay in touch with the UAW?
A: I spoke with President Fain regularly throughout the process. We understand how important it is what they want to achieve for their membership. It’s a real moment for them to be able to deliver benefits for U.S. auto workers, and I wish they can do all of that because it’s really important that we make sure that’s the case in the auto industry There are good jobs south and north of the border, family supporting jobs that support our community, and that’s really our goal here.
Q: How would a long strike in the U.S. affect the Canadian automotive industry?
A: You must take the necessary measures to achieve a good collective agreement. We were prepared to take actions that would have impacted UAW jobs. This is what would have happened if we had closed Ford Motor Co. in Canada. We supply engines to a number of UAW workplaces. These are the things that working people sometimes need to do to get ahead for themselves and their families.
So we certainly understand that if the UAW gets to the point where they have to carry out an extended strike… we have US-built engines that are being put into the minivans here, for example; That’s exactly how we build engines for you, folks south of the border. So it can have an impact. Currently the impact is not major.
We’re seeing some of this on our auto parts page, but we’ll wait and evaluate (Friday) as soon as it’s announced what the impact will be here. We have provisions in our collective agreement to protect our members in the event of (a) layoffs and the like.
I hope they get a fair contract as soon as possible; I know this would be best for her.
More: Auto suppliers say if the UAW strikes more factories, it could spell doom for many
More: Unifor and UAW chose different negotiating strategies. 1 has a deal. The other one doesn’t.