Unions take stand on concession demands

Frequency of lock-outs cited as proof of aggressive tactics
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 11/01/2010

After surviving layoffs, wage cuts and rollbacks on everything from pensions to time off, concession fatigue is setting amongst workers across the country. Over the past year, concession demands have been at the heart of disputes from health care in Saskatchewan to a dairy plant in Nova Scotia and the auto sector in Ontario.

Now the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) is launching a campaign to say “enough is enough,” according to the assistant to the union’s president, Jerry Dias, starting in the beleaguered auto parts industry.

“It’s time to stop the pressure,” he said. “We’re done giving. We were part of the solution in tough times. Workers gave up a lot and fought to keep their jobs. That has to be remembered.”

The CAW is stepping up its message with a targeted campaign within the sector. A 12-page pamphlet is being distributed to about 20,000 members calling on them to resist further proposals for bargaining concessions. The union is also organizing workplace rallies and planning to bring in union activists from other locations to strengthen picket lines or fight further concession demands.

Dias said resistance could take multiple forms, from demonstrations and plant shutdowns — to more.

“We will do whatever we need to protect our jobs,” he said.

There’s no reason for continued concessions, according to Dias. He said the auto sector is currently stabilizing. Three years ago, the industry produced 18 million vehicles a year. Production fell to eight million at the peak of the recession, but has since bounced back to 12.3 million this year. In response, plants across Ontario, from GM in Oshawa to CAMI in Ingersoll, are adding shifts.

“That’s a sign of stability,” said Dias. “Are we out of the woods yet? No. But we’ve already given and, as a minimum, workers should expect job security.”

The CAW would like to see more compromise instead of concessions. In May, when GM severed its contract with unionized Automodular to sign on with Inteva Products, a non-unionized Michigan-based company, the CAW reached an agreement to move its 70 members to the new company. They took their union cards, collective bargaining agreement and existing wages with them.

“That’s a footprint of what a solution can be,” he said. “It’s an example of when things work.”

The CAW, which represents about 30 per cent of the workers in the auto parts sector, plans to distribute the pamphlets to non-unionized operations as part of its campaign.

“A lot of what our campaign is about is not just unions, but Canadian workers,” he said. “Thousands lost their jobs in the recession and got nothing.”

The United Steelworkers (USW), which is locked in a dispute with Sears Canada over what it deems concessionary demands, supports the CAW’s goal. About 500 workers at the company’s distribution centre in Vaughn have been locked out since March. Sears wants to move pensions, healthcare benefits and vacation entitlements to fall under the scope of store policy, rather than the collective agreement.

Wayne Fraser, director of the USW’s District 6, said this amounts to a rollback for workers. While concession demands are nothing new, he said there has been a noticeable shift toward lock-outs as unions resist the pressure to give more.

“It used to be only the most incorrigible employers that would lock out workers,” he said. In fact, according to federal government statistics, there have been more lock-outs in the last year than the previous four.

Fraser said the absence of anti-replacement worker legislation in many provinces, particularly Ontario, makes it much easier for companies to make concession demands.

“Whenever you see a lock-out, it follows the same pattern,” he said. “The company hires union-busting security, and then brings in replacement workers.”

Like the CAW, the USW is also drawing a line on concessions, and threatening a more militant tone in future.

“We have a few surprises for Sears over the Christmas season,” he said coyly.

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