Unifor, Fiat Chrysler labor talks moving slowly as strike deadline looms

FCA Canada spokeswoman LouAnn Gosselin declined to comment on the talks beyond a statement previously issued at the start of bargaining Oct. 1.

“FCA Canada welcomes the opportunity to move our discussions with Unifor forward,” the statement read. “We are committed to reaching an agreement that will allow us to continue investing in our future and create opportunities for our employees, their families and the communities where we live and work.”

Potential strike?

In an update posted Tuesday afternoon on the Unifor national website, the union said it was “encouraging members to be prepared if strike action becomes necessary,” though it remained “hopeful” that a tentative agreement would be reached by the deadline.

“However, if FCA continues to push back on the pattern and refuses to deliver concrete investment commitments, the likelihood of job action as of midnight on Oct. 15 grows,” the union said.

A strike would halt production of the Chrysler Pacifica and Voyager minivans in Windsor, as well as the Chrysler 300 sedan and the Dodge Charger and Challenger muscle cars built in Brampton. It would also shut down an FCA casting plant in Toronto that builds aluminum die castings for various FCA models.

FCA models built in Canada combined to account for about 16 per cent of all of the company’s new-vehicle sales in Canada and the United States in the first three quarters of 2020. According to the Automotive News Data Center, the company sold 226,491 of those vehicles in the two countries, mostly in the United States.

Pattern deal

Unifor hopes to pattern a deal with FCA off of the one it recently reached with Ford Motor Co. The new three-year contract with Ford includes raises, bonuses, a reduction in the wage grow-in period for new hires and a commitment from the company to invest $1.4 billion in its Oakville, Ontario, plant to build electric vehicles starting in 2026. 

FCA, however, “continues to challenge the union on key elements of the pattern agreement,” including on issues pertaining to wages and health care benefits, according to Unifor. The union said it was also waiting for “firm commitments on facility investments and product allocations” for FCA’s Canadian plants, an issue it singled out on Saturday as being “one of the slowest moving issues” in negotiations.

Unifor President Jerry Dias and FCA executives in suburban Detroit are in “regular discussion” on the union’s investment demand, according to the Tuesday update.

Windsor crossover?

The union aimed to receive one or two new products to build alongside the minivans in Windsor, following the end of the third shift at the plant earlier this year. Declining sales in the minivan segment led to the cut, which cost about 1,500 workers their jobs.

Sam Fiorani, vice-president of global vehicle forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions LLC, previously told Automotive News Canada that a crossover based on FCA’s minivan platform “would make sense” for the plant considering the expected end of Dodge Durango SUV production. The Durango is expected to continue being built at a plant in Detroit until 2023, and a new Dodge crossover could make its debut by 2024, according to the Automotive News Future Product Pipeline. 

The union also wants a commitment for the Brampton plant. The Charger and Challenger models FCA builds there are believed to be highly profitable, but the cars are built on an aging platform. It remains unclear what the long-term future is for the plant, which has long been the subject of speculation.

The talks are taking place as FCA prepares to merge with French automaker PSA Group to form Stellantis, which would be the world’s fourth-largest automaker by global volume. The merger is expected to close by the first quarter of 2021.

Pandemic impact

The negotiations are also happening amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In a Saturday update posted on its website, Unifor said there will be “no significant change to the bargaining process” stemming from additional public safety measures put in place by the Ontario government in recent days. Daily COVID-19 cases have hit record highs in the province in recent days following weeks of rising case numbers.

Unifor said it designed its bargaining protocols for 2020 with the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 in mind.

“In-person meetings will be strictly limited to no more than 10 people [union and company combined],” the union said. “Sanitization of all workspaces in the hotel, along with social distancing measures and the strict use of personal protective equipment, will continue. The only notable change is that early morning internal caucus meetings will now occur online, to accommodate the dozens of Unifor participants.”

Voicemails left for Dias and Dino Chiodo, the union’s auto sector director, were not immediately returned.

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