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Cami strike: Ingersoll labour fight threatens other, smaller plants

By Norman De Bono, The London Free Press

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INGERSOLL -- The strike by Cami Assembly workers is a “gamble,” union leaders were quick to admit Monday, but they say they’re rolling the dice on ensuring they have work for the future.

The 2,800 workers walked off the job late Sunday at the Ingersoll auto plant, their first strike in 25 years, fighting for more money and job security in their talks with owner General Motors Canada.

“This is a gamble — we clearly understand the risk . . . we will not overplay our hand, we understand it will get tight for a lot of people but we will bargain reasonably and responsibly,” said Mike Van Boekel, chairperson of Unifor Local 88, which represents the workers.

At Cami, the union has 2,400 members with 14 years or less experience. That’s not a lot of seniority, and many members have both incomes in their households relying on the plant, he added.

“There is a risk here,” said Van Boekel.

The impact of the strike is already being quickly felt elsewhere as the fallout hits suppliers.

In Ingersoll, 410 workers at Autrans Corp., a Cami supplier, were off the job Monday.

By Wednesday, GM Canada’s St. Catharines plant will be idled, with 1,700 workers affected there.

In London, a host of small plants are nervous since more than 1,600 workers at several parts suppliers to Cami soon could be impacted. There are 140 workers at ­Martinrea, 350 at Autoneum and 300 at Qualtech. London Automotive Manufacturing (formerly Nagata Auto Parts) employs 70, Canada Tubeform 50 and Arcelor Mittal 400 employees, all closely watching talks.

“There is no doubt we are going to feel it here,” said Jim Reid, chairperson of Unifor Local 27, representing some of the auto parts workers.

“How much we feel it depends on how long it lasts,” he said of the strike. “I am sure they are talking today, but I have not received any calls that anyone is off the job yet.”

Many of those plants supply several automakers, so not all workers would be off the job due to the strike at the Ingersoll plant.

But if Cami workers are gambling, it’s a risk worth taking now, noted Tony Faria, an automotive analyst and business professor at the University of Windsor.

The plant is critical to GM’s success and it’s the right time to fight for job security, he said.

“They have nothing to lose,” Faria said of Cami workers. “It is clear now Cami is the lead Equinox plant and they want to ensure the future of that vehicle. They are taking a stand on this issue.”

GM has enough stock to supply Equinox vehicles to dealers for 53 days, he added.

“GM does not want to lose production. It is a good time to do what they are doing. It is a gamble; it won’t help relations with GM, but they are working three shifts and cranking out vehicles. It is a very profitable plant.”

GM invested $560 million in 2015 in a new weld shop at Cami. Still, the plant lost production of the Terrain vehicle to a plant in Mexico in July, forcing more than 400 layoffs — and that’s driven the union to want greater job security language in its contract.

The union wants contract language saying Cami is the “lead plant” in making the Equinox. That means it will always have one more shift working than a plant in Mexico also assembling the Equinox. For example, if a plant in Mexico employs two shifts of workers assembling the vehicle, three would be employed in Ingersoll. If it’s two shifts at Cami, then one in Mexico.

“We are not greedy. There is no reason for them to take it away and we think this is fair,” said Van Boekel.

The workers have been on mandatory overtime six days a week for more than seven years, and have consistently won top quality, productivity and efficiency awards with that pace, said Van Boekel.

“There is a bigger gamble if we don’t secure a product here. The corporation has shown what they will do. “They moved the Terrain and they can move the Equinox just as quickly” without a letter naming Cami the company’s lead plant, said Dan Borthwick, Unifor Local 88 president.

“They need to address these issues.”

The unions and GM Canada are also far apart on some monetary issues, including pension improvements.

The two other Detroit automakers, Chrysler and Ford, have won contract language naming plants in Windsor and Oakville as lead plants for vehicles. Now, it’s GM Canada’s turn, added Van Boekel.

“We can’t get job security language at all — they won’t touch it. We want a letter saying they cannot pull it out of the country,” he said of GM Canada.

“They’re very clear — they’re here just to make money. There’s no respect; we want to be compensated, we’re looking for some changes.”

The picket line Monday drew support from Autrans Corp. workers, the Ingersoll supplier to Cami that helps assemble engine and front ends for the Equinox.

“We want to show solidarity. We need to keep jobs in Canada. If they can take (the Terrain) they can take anything. It could be our fight next,” said Bonnie Murphy, a worker at Autrans, represented by Unifor Local 2163.

Talks between GM Canada and Cami broke down at 11 p.m. Sunday.

GM Canada issued a statement saying it want talks to continue.

“While General Motors of Canada and our Unifor partners have made very positive progress on several issues over the past weeks, the company is disappointed that we were not able to complete a new agreement. We encourage Unifor to resume negotiations and to continue working together to secure a competitive agreement,” it said.

Of the 2,800 on strike, more than 400 are on layoff. Cami also has about 300 salaried staff.

In August, workers voted 99.8 per cent in favour of a strike.

ndebono@postmedia.com

twitter.com/NormatLFPress

Some London and area suppliers to Cami

  • 410 workers at Autrans Corp. in Ingersoll
  • 400 Arcelor Mittal, (several plants in London and region)
  • 350 at Autoneum
  • 300 at Qualtech
  • 140 at Martinrea
  • 70 London Automotive Manufacturing (formerly Nagata Auto Parts)
  • 50 Canada Tubeform

Cami Assembly

  • Opened in 1989 in Ingersoll
  • Employs 2,800 union, 300 salaried staff
  • Assembles the Equinox crossover utility vehicle
  • Workers went on strike Sunday, 11 pm, over job security and monetary issues
  • Its last major strike was 1992, lasting five weeks.
  • GM Canada concluded talks with its other Unifor plants in September 2016. Those workers received wage increases, a higher starting wage for new hires and a signing bonus. The company also pledged a new vehicle for its Oshawa assembly plant, and made 700 temporary jobs permanent.
  • The last contract talks, in September 2013, ended with 89 per cent of workers approving a four-year pact that, among other things, extended benefits and other full-time perks to about 300 people who’d been contract workers.