After several weeks of negotiations, Unifor President Jerry Dias announced on Tuesday, Sep. 21 that a tentative agreement has been reached with the Ford Motor Company, covering some 6000-plus workers in Ontario’s auto sector. Unifor members will now vote to decide whether or not to ratify the proposed settlement that their leadership has negotiated. Having entered negotiations with 96.4 percent of its workers voting for strike action if necessary, there was clearly an overwhelming willingness among the workers to fight to secure their future. They will now decide whether or not this tentative agreement achieves that goal.
In total, 17,000 Unifor auto workers are currently up for a new collective agreement, covering those at Ford as well as Fiat Chrysler and General Motors. Once commonly known as the ‘Big Three’, the press has more recently taken to referring to these companies as the ‘Detroit Three’, reflecting the increasingly diminished footprint they possess within the global auto industry. GM and Chrysler in fact only survived the economic crisis of 2008 because they were given a bailout by the US and Canadian governments, costing Canada US$13.7 billion. And far from using this money to take care of their own workers, they instead used the crisis to exact concessions from the then Canadian Auto Workers union, securing a wage freeze and introducing a two-tier wage system in 2008. This was then followed up with a further entrenchment of the two-tier wage system in 2012, extending the time it takes a new hire to reach full wages from 3 years to 10 years.
Following a practice known as pattern bargaining, Dias made the decision back on Sep. 8 to negotiate first with Ford, in theory setting a pattern for the other two companies to follow. The decision was an interesting one. It comes on the heels of the historic closure in 2019 of the once proud Oshawa GM Assembly Plant, which led to the loss of 2,300 of its 2,600 jobs. Prior to this, in the 2016 round of contract negotiations, Dias had championed the so-called ‘production guarantees’ his team negotiated. In his eyes, such ‘guarantees’ would ensure auto sector jobs would be here to stay. In exchange for this, the union gave up defined benefit pensions for new hires, which was yet another significant concession leading to further tiering of the workforce.
Even if you could say that it was worth it to give up secure pensions for new hires in exchange for continued production and jobs for all, there is still one glaring problem with the whole scheme. At the end of the day, you cannot control what you do not own. While the owning capitalist shareholders of GM or Ford may agree to a so-called ‘production guarantee’, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from going back on their word and packing up shop if it happens to suit their interests. And that is exactly what happened in Oshawa. Despite making billions in profits from its operations, GM made the decision to shut the plant down anyway because it simply thought it could make more money elsewhere. And so they did. GM Oshawa workers put up a hell of a fight to keep the plant open, organizing blockades, spontaneous walk-outs and sit-ins. In the end, however, Dias agreed to a deal to keep a mere 300 jobs around for parts and stamping operations, and the Oshawa-Durham community has been suffering ever since. Labour Fightback activists actively supported Oshawa GM workers in their struggle, attending their blockade of GM headquarters, and putting forward a resolution to nationalize GM which was eventually adopted and passed by the workers in their union local.
Now enter Ford. Having the second-largest unionized assembly plant in Ontario, these 4,200 workers in Oakville are currently facing a similarly uncertain future. With production only lined up to continue to the end of 2023, and most of Ford’s North American production operations now located in the non-unionized Midwest, there has been strong speculation that the plant might eventually be shut down for precisely these reasons. Such a development would mark a repeat of the Oshawa GM debacle but on a higher level, with almost twice as many jobs at stake. It is this possibility which has hung heavily over the negotiations.
Echoing his past approach, Dias has gone into the current round of negotiations once again emphasizing the need to secure guarantees for future production. He has found an unlikely ally this time around, however. The Toronto Star reported on Sunday, Sep. 20 that the federal and provincial governments would be willing to contribute up to $500 million to finance electrical vehicle production at the Ford Oakville assembly plant, part of an estimated $2 billion plan to retool production and keep the plant running beyond 2023. Dias essentially confirmed this at his press conference on Tuesday, intimating that this investment deal was a centrepiece of the tentative agreement. While the full details of the agreement will not be released to the public until after members have voted on it this coming Sunday, Sep. 27, Dias also hinted that progress was made on the two-tier wage system in terms of how long it takes to reach full rate.
While it is certainly a welcome development to hear that these workers might continue to have jobs for the foreseeable future under the premises of such an agreement, there are many potential issues involved. In the first place, Unifor members working at the Oakville assembly plant and other Ford properties must have the full information about what is contained in the negotiated agreement before voting on it this Sunday, including any potential concessions that are included. This point might seem obvious, but this actually has not been the case in the past. It has in fact become such a sticking point that some rank-and-file Unifor members have taken to organizing a petition demanding full contract transparency for members. The Solidarity Movement behind the petition has managed to get over 1700 signatures so far, proving that this is clearly a burning issue among ordinary workers. It has garnered media attention, as well as a dismissive statement from Dias, stating, “I don’t chase mice when I’m hunting elephants.”
Then there is the issue of corporate welfare. Of the $13.7 billion that was loaned to save GM and Chrysler over ten years ago, it is estimated that $3.7 billion was never paid back and ultimately written off. It is only an ‘estimate’ because the federal government, first under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and more recently under Justin Trudeau, has refused to release precise figures on the matter. According to the Fraser Institute, at one point the government actually owned $5.2 billion in preferred and common shares of GM, which it has since sold off. The Fraser Institute article concludes, arguing from a capitalist perspective, that rather than offering bailouts to GM and Chrysler in the first place, they should have instead been simply allowed to fail, destroying tens of thousands of good-paying unionized jobs with it in the process.
For anybody that cares about the welfare of the working class, this is of course not an option. Nor, however, is handing out billions in public funds to capitalists with the hope that they might do something in the public interest. Ford has been a recipient of the Federal Emergency Wage Subsidy, which means that they have likely already been paid millions by the federal government. The federal government, however, refuses to reveal how much they are spending, nor can we even be sure that Ford is using all of the money for its intended purpose. And on top of it all, Prime Minister Trudeau now appears to be prepared to fork over an additional $500 million to ensure the jobs continue to stay. But why gift Ford so much money when there is no actual guarantee that they will preserve jobs? This is a game they can play decade after decade to make workers trade away pay and conditions in exchange for dubious job guarantees. The only way to genuinely guarantee jobs and stop their game is for the workers to take over Ford and the other auto companies. Rather than begging at the table for scraps, Unifor should be demanding that the government nationalize Ford Oakville assembly, and run the plant under democratic workers’ control.
A nationalized Oakville assembly plant could retool production to meet the needs of the workers and the planet, while not having to worry about the narrow interests of capitalist shareholders. While management would never willingly give up their power on the shop floor, the workers could take the initiative and politely show them the way out. And the money is certainly there. The $13.7 billion handed out in 2009 could have been enough for the government to acquire a controlling ownership share in both GM and Chrysler—they instead chose not to. There is no reason why we can’t do the same with Ford today. Dias spoke in his press conference of the hope of a national auto plan finally being realized as a result of this latest government intervention, part of an imagined transition to a sustainable green economy in the future. A genuine auto plan that is good for workers, the public, and the environment can only be achieved on a socialist basis. The nationalization of the Detroit Three would be a great start in this direction, because only in this way could the auto industry be truly controlled and planned in the interests of the vast majority.