Ford wage, benefits fuel union buzz at Honda, Toyota, says Canadian autoworkers leader

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Unifor National President Jerry Dias arrives at the Renaissance Center in Detroit on Thursday, Dec., 20, 2018, to meet with General Motors executives about the future of the Oshawa assembly plant in Canada. - Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press/TNS

Jerry Dias has his eye on Honda and Toyota now.

The president of Unifor, the union representing Detroit Three autoworkers in Canada, said contract talks with Ford Motor Co. went so well that nonunion workers have begun making inquiries, wondering if the time has come to join.

The Ford deal announced Sept. 28 included a $1.5 billion (U.S.) investment to bring battery-electric vehicle production to Oakville Assembly near Toronto and a new engine derivative to Windsor. The agreement was a massive negotiation among government, company and union officials. And the wages set a pattern for the other automaker contracts.

“It showed how things should work, with the federal government and Ford Motor Co. and the union all in the room — how you create jobs,” Dias told the Free Press.

An attempt by the Free Press to contact Toyota workers on Saturday was unsuccessful. ?Unifor said, based on experience, workers involved in organizing do not speak to the media for fear of reprisals at work.

Unifor, which represents 315,000 members mostly in telecommunications and health care, publicly prides itself on developing a collaborative relationship among parties that have sparred in the past. Now they’re working together to build on the business plan that creates job security for factory workers and a long-term automotive strategy for Canada.

“In Canada, government is saying to the automakers, ‘Look, we’re in. We understand where the future is heading and we’re going to play a role,’ “ Dias said.

China and Europe are highly competitive in the area of battery-electric vehicles, widely considered to be the future of the industry, Dias noted. And Canada made clear it’s planning to fight for market share.

“Auto companies have been disinvesting in Canada for quite a while during a time of incredible growth over the last decade. Our footprint has shrunk,” Dias said.

Now fortunes have reversed.

“With the deal we signed with Ford, our organizing has increased significantly at Honda and Toyota,” Dias said. “The economics are significant. We get in signing bonuses, production bonuses, wage increases, benefit changes, and we’re working with the government. … Honda and Toyota workers are seeing we’re not just in the middle of it, but we’ve led it.”

Unifor has passed out leaflets and flyers to Toyota workers, sharing details of the Ford deal, in addition to e-blasting Toyota workers whose addresses have been provided to Unifor by union organizers inside Toyota. Unifor declined to providedetails on the Honda campaign.

Detroit Three model

Until now, he said, the nonunion automakers have matched union wages to depress interest in collective bargaining. Efforts to organize foreign automakers in the U.S. have failed with the Detroit-based UAW, too.

But the paradigm has shifted, even during a pandemic, Dias said.

“People were saying, ‘Why would they even proceed into contract negotiations during a pandemic?’ That was a question that was being asked,” he said. “People were shocked at the outcome.”

At Honda and Toyota, which employ approximately 4,200 and 8,500 workers, respectively, in Canada, certain conditions make them open to unionization, Dias said. He pointed to the use of long-term temporary workers, for example.

“There’s no really clear path to full-time status if you’re working full-time hours,” he said. “Then there are the senior people who have chosen to stay nonunion. They’re saying now, in essence, ‘We’ve proven our loyalty to you, now it’s time for you to reciprocate.’ “

Neither Honda nor Toyota seem concerned about union activity.

“Apart from a handful of Unifor members handing out pamphlets outside our plants for a few hours last week, we’ve seen no increase in Unifor activity as it relates to our team members,” Michael Bouliane, manager of corporate communications for Toyota in Canada, told the Free Press last Tuesday.

Honda has ‘rejected’ union

While Honda of Canada respects worker decisions, a union just isn’t needed, said spokeswoman Alana Taylor.

Honda has “demonstrated an outstanding track record of success based on fundamental principles of teamwork, mutual respect and open communication,” Taylor said. “This team-oriented approach has produced world-class products of the highest quality for our customers and unprecedented job security for our associates and their families.”

The issue of union representation is “ultimately” one for workers to decide, she said, and for three decades they “have consistently rejected union outreach efforts. We agree with our associates that there is no need for outside involvement to help us continue the approach that has proved successful.”

But Dias challenges the premise that a union can’t be helpful when it just showed the world that it played a key role in developing a public-private partnership. And he feels Unifor could help the other companies and their workers, too.

Toyota runs plants in Cambridge, Ontario, and Woodstock, Ontario, that build the Toyota RAV4, RAV4 Hybrid, Lexus RX and Lexus RX Hybrid. In 2022, Toyota will begin building the Lexus NX and Lexus NX Hybrid in Canada.

Honda builds the CR-V and Civic in Alliston, Ontario. Plus there’s a plant that builds 2.0L engines for the Honda Civic.

Failed efforts to organize Toyota

Unifor organizers last tried to organize Toyota in 2015.

“There’s no question that the calls coming in from Honda and Toyota (workers) have really stepped up. In recent weeks, they’ve heated up,” Dias said Friday. “Workers are saying to their employer, ‘Are you going to match the (contract) pattern?’ They’re waiting to see if they get the same signing bonus, wages. Their argument is, ‘Why join a union if we’ll pay you the same benefits they do.’ We’ll see if it happens this time.”

In fairness to Honda and Toyota, Dias said, Unifor hasn’t been successful after many years and many attempts. But times are changing, he said.

“They’ve always kind of played on fears, that if you joined a union, somehow you won’t get the investment and it’ll be a challenge for job security. I don’t think people are buying that anymore,” Dias said. “I think there’s a different mindset. I don’t think there’s that fear anymore. If Chrysler, Ford and GM can afford the increase, why not Honda and Toyota?”

Unifor ratified with Ford in pattern collective bargaining these three-year contract elements:

A 5% wage increase over the life of the agreement, along with a 4% lump sum. A productivity and quality bonus of $5,418 (U.S). Inflation protection bonuses and major changes to the New Hire Program, including an eight-year wage grid, and reinstatement of afternoon and midnight shift premiums. A 20% wage differential (reinstated) for skilled trades workers. Paid domestic violence leave. Racial justice advocacy.

At Toyota and Honda, a key challenge is organizing a huge pool of temporary workers, Dias said. “But how many years do you want to be a temporary worker?”

Meanwhile, Unifor represents about 20,000 workers at the Detroit Three. Ford ratified its contract on Sept. 28. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles voted to approve its proposed contract on Thursday with ratification pending. General Motors will begin negotiations with the union next.

Kelli Felker, Ford global manufacturing and labor communications manager, told the Free Press on Friday: “We strongly believe in ongoing collaboration with our union and government partners, not just during negotiations. Having open, honest and sometimes difficult conversations allows us to create solutions that work for everyone involved.”

Unions do help set the market wage for industrial production, which does affect union organizing, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. “But there are a whole host of reasons that employees look to organize and wage is just one of them.”

Job security

If employees sense a lack of workplace fairness related to job safety or promotion or ability to secure full-time status after a long time, those are issues that often inspire union organization. It is also unions that negotiate industrial job relocation and relocation costs when plants close.

“There are a lot of industrial jobs that, when the plant is gone, you’re gone,” Dziczek said. “As opposed to, ‘Can we pay you $30,000 to get you and your family to move to Fort Wayne, Indiana?’ Job security is probably bigger than what the wage is.”

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©2020 Detroit Free Press

Unifor National President Jerry Dias is greeted at the Renaissance Center in Detroit on Dec. 20, 2018. He was to meet with General Motors executives about the future of the Oshawa assembly plant in Canada. - Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press/TNS