Mexico move loomed over Cami talks, observers say
Striking workers of Cami Assembly picket the plant in Ingersoll, Ont. on Thursday October 12, 2017. (DEREK RUTTAN, The London Free Press)
The possibility General Motors may have shut down the Cami Assembly plant and moved its production and jobs to Mexico likely pushed striking workers to a deal, automotive-industry observers say.
Stopping short of saying Unifor, the union representing 2,800 striking workers who walked out Sept. 17, blinked in tough contract talks with the automaker, analysts said the potential of losing assembly of the Equinox to Mexico loomed over the negotiating table.
“It had to have some impact on the union’s bargaining position. The union had to keep the plant open,” said Charlotte Yates, former dean of social sciences at McMaster University and now vice-president academic at the University of Guelph.
“It played a role. The union will argue it did the best it could, but it was in a tough position.”
Cami workers vote today on the tentative deal with GM Canada reached late Friday. Unifor wanted language declaring Cami a preferred site for assembling the Equinox, meaning it would make more vehicles here than in Mexico.
The union also said it would have accepted a pledge of three shifts a day for the life of the deal, or a new vehicle to assemble.
Prior to the agreement, there were reports GM had begun the process of moving assembly of the Equinox crossover vehicle now made at Cami to Mexico.
Union officials would not release details of the tentative agreement, but said it does address job-security concerns at the Ingersoll plant.
“The union may have made progress, but you reach a point in bargaining when you say this is the best you can get,” Yates said.
Automotive analyst Dennis DesRosiers said pulling Equinox production from Cami was likely one option GM was considering as the strike dragged. “I can’t see any scenario (GM) would not consider all their options and that was one. Canada is a high-cost location for making vehicles,” he said. “We have lost one million units of our capacity (assembling vehicles) and we will lose more.”
Both sides had merit to their arguments, DesRosiers said. Canada is a high-cost jurisdiction and GM needed the option of shifting production, but at the same time Unifor workers are right to fight for their jobs, he said.
“This strike was not about economic issues, it was about jobs. To get a rock-solid guarantee (the Equinox) would never move did not make sense,” DesRosiers said.
“The union will consider this a win, but the long-term winnowing of the auto sector in Canada won’t stop. This may slow it down.”
In July, GM shifted production of the Terrain vehicle from Cami to Mexico, cutting 400 jobs. That layoff sparked a militant tone from the union and the fight for job-security language in the collective agreement.
Unifor had argued Cami employees have been working six days a week for eight years and the plant had won numerous quality and productivity awards, and earned security language in its contract. On Sept 17, at 11 p.m., Cami workers walked off the job after talks on a new deal broke down with GM Canada.
“I think at some point a union has to say, ‘How much more can we get and how much more can our members sacrifice?’ to get a little bit more,” Yates said.
The union had support among many observers because the fight for job security, as opposed to money, struck a sympathetic note with most regardless of whether they are union members, she said.
“There seemed to be more sympathy for the union than there was five years ago. There are a lot of people who have suffered as a result of restructuring.”
The Equinox also is assembled at two plants in Mexico, and GM was ramping up production at those plants.
“We found common ground and we settled,” Unifor Local 88 chairperson Mike Van Boekel said late Friday of the deal. “We have taken care of job security through different avenues. Job security has been addressed.”
A GM spokesperson — who refused to be named, citing the ongoing negotiations at that time — said in a Canadian Press interview the company had no choice but to explore production alternatives. The company said it couldn’t agree to the union’s demand to guarantee investments and job security because they’re part of long-term trade issues, including the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation.
“It was a tough round of talks, a very tough round of talks,” Van Boekel said. “Our members will be back at work and we should be back for a long time.”
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Cami and the strike
General Motors-owned plant opened in 1989 in Ingersoll.
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.