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Toyota fighting push by Unifor to unionize Woodstock and Cambridge maintenance workers

By Norman De Bono, The London Free Press

Toyota plant (file photo)

Toyota plant (file photo)

The world’s largest automaker is fighting the latest push to unionize some of its Ontario workers.

Unifor applied to certify a group of skilled trade workers at Toyota’s Woodstock and Cambridge plants, known as the maintenance department.

But the automaker is fighting the application, saying the 500-strong maintenance group is part of the 8,000-member production team, not a separate group.

“They have objected, just as we thought they would. They are saying maintenance is not a separate unit, that it is part of production,” said Ken Cleveland, an electrician at Toyota.

If the skilled trades workers are ruled to be part of production, it means Unifor would have to sign 40 per cent of production workers to hold a vote to unionize them. Unifor has not been able to do that over the two years it has been working to organize the plants.

“We have had some hurdles to overcome,” said John Aman, organizing director for Unifor.

“We have always felt we had decent support, but the sheer size makes it difficult to organize.”

If Unifor’s application to certify the skilled trade workers succeeds, it will give the union a toehold at Toyota. Aman said he hopes support for the union would spread throughout the plants.

More than 50 per cent of the maintenance workers have signed cards, Aman said.

Unifor expects the vote will still be held on whether to unionize the workers, but ballot boxes would be sealed until after Ontario’s Labour Ministry rules on whether the maintenance department can be recognized as a separate department.

If that ruling is in Toyota’s favour, the ballot boxes will be destroyed. If Unifor wins, the votes will be counted, Cleveland said.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada (TMMC) said in a statement the drive is a bid to divide the workplace.

“Production and maintenance teams . . . are well-integrated in our organization and their teamwork is a necessity each and every day. This application for certification aims to separate these two groups within TMMC. That segregation could ultimately affect all of our team members,” read the statement.

“We don’t believe a union has ­anything to offer to our workplace. . . . We have a successful track record working together.”

The maintenance staff is comprised largely of electricians and millwrights, Cleveland said.

The union will argue maintenance staff are different. Production workers wait several years to become full time but tradespeople are hired as full timers.

The two groups also have separate schedules and a different pay grid. If a production worker becomes a maintenance worker, they get a new seniority date.

“It’s like moving to a different company,” said Cleveland, who’s been at Toyota for 19 years.

Issues leading to workers signing union cards include a reduction in pensions, wage increases of less than two per cent since 2008 while wages for managers have increased, a feeling they’ve been left out of decision making, and health and safety concerns because the pace of production has increased.