Lewenza says automakers must 'respect' workers' sacrifices
Published Tuesday, August 14, 2012 6:36AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, August 14, 2012 10:37PM EDT
Canadian Auto Workers union president Ken Lewenza said it is time for the Big Three automakers “to remember the sacrifices that auto workers have made,” as the two sides open negotiations on new contracts.
The CAW opened talks with General Motors Tuesday morning and met with Chrysler representatives in the afternoon. Talks with Ford begin Wednesday morning. All meetings are taking place at Toronto’s Sheraton Centre hotel.
Addressing reporters at a news conference Tuesday, Lewenza said the 2009 negotiations and deals, in which the union made a number of concessions as the companies struggled to remain solvent, are “pretty painful for our members.”
Lewenza pointed out that workers made concessions on wages and benefits, and retirees approved pension changes.
But Lewenza said that as the companies return to solid footing, it’s the time to “respect those sacrifices.”
Lewenza said “the industry has come a long way since 2009,” having regained a couple of thousand jobs and about half of the production volume that was lost during the economic crisis.
“But it is the profits that have rebounded more strongly than anyone expected. GM and Ford are earning record profit margins on their North American business, and Chrysler has come back to profitability far faster than anyone dared to hope for in 2009,” Lewenza said.
“The companies have learned to make money even at low volumes. Workers’ sacrifices have been a big part of that success.”
Lewenza said Tuesday the goal is to secure new deals with “all three companies without a work stoppage.” The current contracts expire on Sept. 17.
But he warned the companies against making demands for further concessions from union members.He said the automakers have been "very aggressive" during meetings and have said that the higher loonie is increasing production costs in Canada.
“If one or more of these companies is serious about trying to enforce more concessions on our members, despite their profits, then we should be clear we’re in trouble,” Lewenza said.
But a Chrysler Canada spokesman warned Tuesday that although the company has returned to profitability, it is not out of the woods.
"While the industry and Chrysler have demonstrated some improvements to date, those gains have been modest and it is critical that we not return to an uncompetitive situation," said Todd Bested, Chrysler Canada's director of labour relations.
Lewenza said the discussions with GM were "frank and honest," but the two parties are still "miles apart."
GM said it was optimistic that it will be able to reach a deal with CAW.
"The North American auto industry today faces extremely challenging competitive conditions and there is no finish line for improving our products, our processes and building the company we want for the future," the company said in a statement.
"Achieving a competitive agreement with our CAW labour partners is one important element of many as we continue moving forward."
The union is negotiating on behalf of 8,000 workers at Chrysler, 8,000 others at GM and about 4,500 at Ford.
On Monday, Lewenza had called on the companies to invest in their Canadian plants to not only increase productivity and profits, but also give workers greater job security.
"We want the very best state-of-the-art paint jobs," Lewenza told The Canadian Press.
"We want the very best technology that's offered in the manufacturing of vehicles. Because when you invest in the facility, you increase productivity. When you increase productivity, then you increase profits, and then wages become more sustainable."
Ontario’s auto sector has been hammered by job cuts by the Big Three automakers over the last 10 years, with thousands of job disappearing as the companies struggled to remain solvent.
The CAW made concessions in its last round of bargaining with GM and Chrysler as the companies accepted $13 billion in bailout funds from the Ontario and federal governments back in 2009. The bulk of that money, some $10.5 billion, was given to GM, as the companies struggled amid the financial crisis.
In addition to some wage concessions, the union also agreed to cuts in benefits, vacation time and cost-of-living payments as the companies sought to reduce labour costs.
Last month, GM Canada announced that it will invest $850 million in various research and development projects over the next four years, largely focused on the development of electric cars and environmental research.
The package helps fulfill conditions of the government bailout.
Yet it is still unclear what impact the new money will have on job creation within the company.
Despite the investment, GM announced in June that it plans to go ahead and begin closing a consolidated plant in Oshawa, Ont., which will eliminate 2,000 jobs by June 2013.
GM has also closed a truck plant in Oshawa and a transmission factory in Windsor, Ont. A flex plant in Oshawa, though, is slated to share production of the new Chevy Impala with a facility in Michigan.
In contrast, Toyota Canada announced last month that it will invest $100 million in its plant in Cambridge, Ont., which will result in 400 new hires. Earlier this year, the company invested $80 million in an assembly plant in Woodstock, Ont., which also created some 400 jobs.
With files from The Canadian Press