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Cami strike: Frustrated union officials went to the top Thursday, taking their nearly two-week-long fight to GM brass in Detroit

By Jennifer Bieman, Hank Daniszewski, The London Free Press

Pickets walk the line outside the strikebound Cami car factory in Ingersoll Thursday, as the focus in the strike by 2,800 workers shifted to getting top executives in General Motors in Detroit involved in the stalemate.  (BRUCE CHESSELL, Woodstock Sentinel-Review)

Pickets walk the line outside the strikebound Cami car factory in Ingersoll Thursday, as the focus in the strike by 2,800 workers shifted to getting top executives in General Motors in Detroit involved in the stalemate. (BRUCE CHESSELL, Woodstock Sentinel-Review)

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A dramatic turn Thursday in the nearly two-week-old strike by Cami workers ended in suspense, their union waiting to hear how its appeal to top brass at General Motors in Detroit goes down.

Unifor national president Jerry Dias and executives from the union’s Local 88, representing 2,800 workers at the Ingersoll assembly plant, took their fight straight to GM’s headquarters after they said talks with GM Canada were going nowhere and an industry analyst warned the company is running out of “wiggle room” to settle the standoff at the plant.

Unifor officials left the two-hour meeting in Detroit with the giant automaker saying it would get back to them within a day, meaning sometime Friday.

“We had a constructive meeting with the company and we are now waiting to hear back from them in the next 24 hours — that’s how we have left it,” said Unifor plant chairperson Mike Van Boekel as he drove home from Detroit Thursday night.

The union delegation, including Dias, sat down with the company’s heads of North American manufacturing and finance after talks Tuesday and Wednesday with GM Canada stalled.

After Thursday’s meeting, the union expressed optimism the strike could soon end.

“If we hear back from them in the way that we hope to, we believe we could wrap everything up in the next three or four days,” said Van Boekel.

Just in time, warned one observer, noting as the strike drags on, the clock is ticking with little flexibility for GM as inventories of the popular, Cami-built Chevrolet Equinox SUV dwindle.

“We’re heading for crunch time, because GM only had a 53-day supply of vehicles when the strike began,” said the University of Windsor’s Tony Faria, who specializes in automotive research.

Cami workers walked out Sept. 17 to fight for job security, with the ripple effect idling many more in the wider auto industry, including Southwestern Ontario parts and trucking firms supplying the GM-owned plant.

On the picket line in Ingersoll Thursday, workers were uncharacteristically quiet, referring questions about the standoff to Unifor Local 88, which represents the plant’s hourly employees.

Dan Borthwick, president of Local 88, said two days of renewed bargaining this week were fruitless, despite a new offer from the union this week.

“We had some discussions on Tuesday and Wednesday that went nowhere,” Borthwick said.

Borthwick said Unifor requested the meeting, hoping that dealing with more senior GM executives would bring a breakthrough.

“We are trying anything and every­thing to get this resolved. The current process is not working here in Ingersoll,” he said.

The outcome of the meeting wasn’t immediately apparent.

Ingersoll Mayor Ted Comiskey said the mood in the town is “nervous.”

Comiskey voiced support for the union’s play to take talks to Detroit. “I won’t even question that,” he said. “I know what they’re after, they’re after security.”

With nearly one-quarter of Cami’s workers living in Ingersoll, the strike affects nearly every part of the community, from parts suppliers to restaurants, Comiskey said.

“We’re doing our best to be supportive in any way possible,” he said.

While two plants in Mexico also build the Equinox, GM’s ability to boost production there may be limited. Those Mexican factories set the stage earlier this year for the labour showdown in Ingersoll.

Faria said he believes the battle loomed as soon as GM moved production of another popular vehicle, the GMC Terrain, from Cami to Mexico. Workers in Ingersoll now want GM to guarantee it always will build more Equinoxes here than in Mexico, the issue at the heart of the strike.

Faria said he’s not surprised recent talks haven’t solved things, saying the union’s new proposal didn’t budge on its demand for future production guarantees.

“It doesn’t leave a lot of room for negotiations. I’m disappointed Unifor isn’t giving GM much wiggle room.”

Faria noted the North American market peaked last year at about 21.5 million vehicles sold, with sales of 17 million to 18 million forecast for this year.

He said GM will be reluctant to make long-term production commitments, especially with Canada and the U.S. renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

With that fundamental issue wedged between the two sides, the strike could last a while, Faria said.

“If Unifor is going to take a stand, this is the right time,” he said. “Mostly, this is a matter of how many Equinox sales GM is willing to forgo and how determined Unifor is.”

The strike, the first at Cami in 25 years, has had rapid fallout in Southwestern Ontario’s wider auto industry, where suppliers are tightly integrated with automakers under a just-in-time delivery system that means once the assembly lines stop, so does the need for parts. That quickly triggers layoffs at Cami’s suppliers.

— With files by Dale Carruthers, the London Free Press, and Bruce Chessell, Woodstock Sentinel-Review.

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Cami and the strike

General Motors-owned Ingersoll plant opened in 1989.

Employs 2,800 unionized workers, 300 salaried staff.

Builds the popular Equinox crossover vehicle, work the employees want preserved in Ingersoll.

Workers began strike Sept. 17 over job security and monetary issues.

Last strike, 25 years ago, lasted five weeks.

GM Canada concluded talks with its other Unifor plants last year, with workers getting wage increases, a higher starting wage for new hires and a signing bonus.

Company also pledged a new vehicle for its Oshawa plant.