GM and Unifor collude to cut labour costs in Canada

On March 15 Unifor Local 199 officials distributed a joint union-management statement announcing the outsourcing of work for HFV6 crankshaft production at the General Motors powertrain engine plant in St. Catharines, Ontario. The announcement also outlined a “special one-time hourly production retirement incentive” that seeks applications to leave employment from 170 veteran workers who would be eligible for retirement by September of this year.

The move again demonstrates the role of Unifor as a junior partner to corporate management in their joint drive to continue slashing labour costs in the auto industry at the expense of the workforce.

Firstly, the call for 170 retirements is of a piece with the drive by GM and Unifor to cut the number of veteran workers who, due to their position on the first tier of contract provisions, earn as much as $14 (CDN) more in wages and in addition receive better benefits than more newly hired workers on the ten-year “grow-in” second tier.

Unifor president Jerry Dias said as much before the 2016 round of contract negotiations opened at GM plants in Oshawa and St. Catharines. Speaking like a cheap labour contractor, Dias bragged that “about two-thirds of unionized workers at the Oshawa plants are eligible to retire under the provisions of the Unifor contract with GM. This will save General Motors billions.”

Dias went on to excitedly explain, “If those workers retire, they can be replaced by newly hired employees who start at $20.50 per hour and whose wages won’t rise to the full seniority level of $34 an hour until they have been there for 10 years.” For Unifor, what is paramount in their calculations is not the well-being of the members they claim to represent, but the maintenance of a lucrative dues base that funds their six-figure salaries, perks and expense accounts.

In last week’s announcement, veteran St. Catharines workers have been given until April 6 to apply for the one-time lump sum retirement payment of $30,000 (CDN)—well below traditional standards. In addition, retiring workers will have the “opportunity” to make a non-guaranteed nomination of a family member or friend to be interviewed for a low-wage second-tier entry level position. It is not at all a foregone conclusion that GM-Unifor will entice 170 workers, who themselves are just coming off a ten-year wage freeze and who face ever dwindling retirement benefits, to take the meagre offer.

The third-party outsourcing of the HFV6 crankshaft production line will result in a further search for retirement-eligible workers to accept exit packages. In their joint March 15 statement GM-Unifor explained that obsolete equipment has caused potentially catastrophic “operational instability” that requires immediate measures be taken to permanently “reassign” the work to another yet-to-be-named supplier. As far as job losses are concerned, “the Union and Company will work together to minimize the impact to the workforce through redeployment.”

Workers at GM St. Catharines—who only narrowly voted to ratify the miserable 2016 Detroit Three pattern “framework agreement”—will no doubt recall the “historic job-saving” investment promises ($150 million for the powertrain facility) trumpeted by Jerry Dias. Yet less than 18 months later, the company and union agree that obsolete equipment will force an almost immediate permanent loss of a major production line.

In the fall of 2016 the World Socialist Web Site Autoworkers Newsletter warned that the “framework agreements” guaranteeing “operational stability” for the Canadian jobs footprint promoted by Dias and the rest of the Unifor officialdom were a fraud. It demanded that workers be given the whole 400-plus-page contract and time to discuss it before any vote. Thousands of autoworkers agreed. The percentages for ratification were the lowest in the history of the Canadian Autoworkers/Unifor. Indeed, the giant Ford Oakville complex rejected the deal outright.

At the St. Catharines facility, Unifor displayed a particularly egregious contempt for the membership. In the local plant settlement the union agreed to an almost wholesale amalgamation of classifications in the skilled trades. Fearing that this would encourage a rebellion amongst the membership, Unifor broke with longstanding precedent and in an effort to hide the details did not call a separate skilled trades ratification meeting before the vote.

More and more workers have come to realize that their unions are in reality arms of the corporations. The recent collective agreements make this clear. As the current 2016 St. Catharines local deal states: “The parties discussed their desire and primary objectives, to allow employees, the Union and the Company, to work together in a spirit of cooperation and mutual trust. The parties, accordingly have come to recognize that each has the desire, the skills, and ability to develop and support the St. Catharines operation and work force, so that it will continue to grow and prosper in a world class competitive environment, to produce components at the lowest possible cost to the consumer.”

The March 15 announcement is just the latest manifestation of the agreement between GM and the union to reduce wages and benefits to “the lowest possible cost.”