Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union. (Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
With no new investment in Canada from the Detroit Three automakers, there would be no jobs, no benefits and no pensions of any kind.
That's something armchair observers with no skin in the game need to understand. It is easy to second guess tough decisions from afar, but there are incredible gains made at the bargaining table with GM.
In negotiating our collective agreement with General Motors, Unifor secured a historic investment of $554 million from the company. This includes products for both Oshawa and St. Catharines and an investment at the Woodstock parts centre. The investment helps workers today and well beyond 2019, when the Oshawa plant was set to close.
Incredibly, production will even shift to bring in jobs to Canada with extra volume being added in St. Catharines -- a stunning reversal of what too many of us have come to expect.
To those who claim that Unifor has endangered pensions for everyone, I say this: You don't know what you are talking about.
In recognition of this investment and the job stability it will create, the deal was ratified on the weekend by our membership. Nobody other than our members gets to decide. They knew what was at stake and voted accordingly.
To secure the future of the General Motors operations in Canada for future generations, Unifor's bargaining team had to make some very difficult decisions. The most difficult, by far, was for new hires to be put into a defined contribution pension plan instead of the old defined benefit plan.
To those who call this a sellout of future generations or claim that Unifor has endangered pensions for everyone, I say this: You don't know what you are talking about.
The reality is that GM has not hired any new staff since our last collective agreement in 2012. Instead, it hired only temporary workers, who have not been eligible for any pension at all -- defined contribution or otherwise.
But with this new collective agreement, the 700 temporary workers, known as supplemental workforce employees or SWE, at GM will now be immediately converted to permanent workers -- with rights, benefits and a signing bonus -- and all 700 will be enrolled in the new pension plan. We can talk all day about ideals, but the reality on the ground in Oshawa, St. Catharines and Woodstock -- communities with strong manufacturing histories, but facing increasingly difficult futures -- is that good jobs of any kind have become increasingly scarce.
Free trade agreements that benefit only the corporations, globalization and the race to the bottom have taken their toll on the auto sector and Canadian manufacturing as a whole.
That's why Unifor faced a stark reality heading into this round of bargaining with the Detroit Three - GM, Fiat-Chrysler and Ford. From the beginning I knew that these talks would be the most important round of talks in a generation for good reason, because the very future of the auto industry in this country was at stake.
We reached a critical point in auto in Canada where the industry would no longer be sustainable without future investments. That made this round of talks, with our demands for investment, make or break for the entire industry.
At General Motors, for instance, the workforce has been cut by 70 per cent since 2000, and despite support from the federal and Ontario governments -- not to mention its Canadian workers -- during the 2009 bankruptcy, its Canadian footprint continued to shrink. The Oshawa assembly plant had no work past 2019, and the St. Catharines complex needed new product commitments, too.
That has now changed.
Thanks to this deal, there are real jobs and a pension, where none existed before. With no jobs, there can be no pension of any kind.
It is all too easy to talk about principles when you don't have to look into the eyes of a young person and explain why your ideals are more important than their access to a good job and a pension plan on which they can begin to build a life for their families.
The members of the GM bargaining committee know these young people personally. They work with them every day, and know the struggles they face.
And they know that with no new investment, these same young workers would face a much more uncertain and difficult future than the one this new contract offers.
Young workers deserve an opportunity to build that life, to buy homes and plan for the future, and in so doing build stronger communities for all of us and our children.
That's what unions are here to fight for, and that's what Unifor achieved with this contract, and will continue to as attention turns to Fiat-Chrysler and then Ford.
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Follow Jerry Dias on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JerryPDias