Oshawa assembly, engines for St. Catharines top Unifor’s wants in GM talks

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Unifor’s strike deadline with General Motors Canada. The union has set a strike deadline of 11:59 p.m. ET on Nov. 4.

The relatively small number of hourly General Motors employees affected by upcoming negotiations between the automaker and Unifor might feel as if they have lower stakes than their counterparts who just ratified deals with Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

But it would be a mistake to write these talks off as a formality. It would be ill advised to not pay close attention to them. Not only will the talks have a major impact on the future of GM’s St. Catharines, Ont., powertrain plant, but we might also learn more about the long-term plans for the former assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont.

Discussions between Unifor and GM are scheduled to begin on Thursday, and the union set a strike deadline of 11:59 p.m. ET on Nov. 4. The talks will cover about 1,600 hourly workers, most of them at the St. Catharines plant.

Unifor is looking to secure a new product for St. Catharines to replace a six-speed transmission that is set to be phased out at the plant in about 18 months, according to Local 199 President Greg Brady. The chapter represents workers at the St. Catharines factory, which also builds V-6 and V-8 engines for vehicles including the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra and Cadillac Escalade, according to GM.

Brady said a replacement for the six-speed transmission is his “main concern” during talks, noting that the engine programs remain stable, particularly the V-8 engine, which he called the plant’s “bread and butter.” He also noted, however, that the plant could benefit from negotiations with GM in 2021, when a contract between the company and Unifor at CAMI Assembly in Ingersoll, Ont., expires.

Given the electric-vehicle investments it’s agreed to with Ford and FCA, Unifor might pursue something similar at CAMI, which builds the Chevrolet Equinox crossover.

“Hopefully, CAMI will get some sort of EV or new product and that product will cause some new employment for the St. Catharines facility,” Brady said, noting the plants’ proximity to each other.

In the meantime, GM and Unifor will also discuss the company’s former assembly plant in Oshawa, where vehicle production ended in 2019. Today, about 265 hourly workers work there building aftermarket parts, with another 189 or so on layoff, according to GM. Another 64 hourly workers there produce about 1 million masks per month, fulfilling a contract between GM and the federal government.

The employment numbers in Oshawa are a far cry from the 2,500 or so that worked there before this year, when the plant still assembled the Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac XTS and did final assembly on pickup bodies shipped from the United States. The end of vehicle assembly in Oshawa rankled union leadership, which launched a cross-border media campaign against the company in 2019 and staged actions including a blockade of GM Canada’s Oshawa headquarters and launching a boycott against Mexico-made GM vehicles.

The fighting largely stopped later in the year when the two sides agreed to a plan to build aftermarket parts there, salvaging some jobs, while also maintaining the plant’s footprint. GM is also developing a 55-acre test track in Oshawa that will support engineering work being done at its Canadian Technical Centre.

Unifor President Jerry Dias has made it no secret over the last year that the union wants Oshawa to build vehicles again. He told Automobile News | tomobile.org Canada on Monday that Oshawa would be a major focus of discussions with GM.

“You’ve got this incredible paint shop there. We should talk about utilizing it,” he said. “It’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars. We’ll see. I’m not making any outlandish predictions. I’m not going to say anything foolish.”

So the two sides will have plenty to discuss, despite a relatively small number of workers covered under the talks.

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