Similar Challenges, Different Strategies, Similar Outcomes: 2023 Unifor-D-3 Collective Bargaining in Canada

Type de publication:

Conference Paper

Auteurs:

John Holmes

Source:

Gerpisa colloquium, Bordeaux (2024)

Résumé:

For the first time since 1999, the cycle of collective bargaining in 2023 between Unifor, the union representing Canadian autoworkers, and the D-3 (GM, Ford and Stellantis) coincided with UAW bargaining in the United States. Furthermore, it took place as the transition to electric vehicles was gathering momentum in North America and amidst a resurgence in collective action among North American workers.[1]

Given the steady loss of Canadian vehicle assembly capacity and jobs since their peak in 1999[3] and a growing awareness of the threat posed by the EV transition, Unifor’s prime bargaining objective in the two previous bargaining rounds (2016 and 2020) had focused, with some success, on securing new investment and vehicle mandates for Canadian assembly and engine plants. However, little progress was made in addressing the decline in real wages that had occurred, especially following the freezing of base wage rates and suspension cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) in 2009

Leading into 2023 bargaining, the economic context in Canada was similar to the United States; tight labour markets making worker retention a major concern for companies, inflation at the highest level for several decades fueling a surge in food and housing costs, and a growing awareness among workers of persistent and rising inequality. Automaker profits stood at record levels. This all suggested that improved wages and pension benefits were likely to be key and potentially winnable demands in 2023 contract negotiations. Workers were angry and rank-and-file autoworkers in both countries were willing to fight back to regain at least some of the ground lost during close to 20 years of concessionary bargaining. One important contextual difference is that Canadian labour law and rules governing union certification and workers’ rights are more union-friendly than in the United States. Despite declining over several decades, unionization rates remain much higher in Canada than the U.S. [2]

Leveraging this political economic conjuncture, the UAW and Unifor made historic gains during 2023 bargaining. Although the bargaining strategies deployed by the two unions were strikingly different, the outcomes, especially regarding compensation, were similar in size and scope. Drawing on union and company documents and key informant interviews, this paper analyzes the factors shaping Unifor’s bargaining strategy, what was achieved, and how the outcomes are likely to impact the competitive position of D-3 plants in Canada, given the highly integrated nature of the industry with the US. It also assesses the implications for Unifor of the radically different bargaining strategy and narrative pursued by the UAW in 2023.

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[1] A marked uptick in strikes/lockouts occurred in Canada beginning in 2017. Earlier in 2023 major strikes had occurred in the federal public sector, ports and retail.
[2] In 2022, 29 percent of Canadian workers were unionized (down from 38 percent in 1981), about 19 percent in the private sector and over 65 percent in the public sector. Union coverage for the auto assembly sector stands at 65 percent and at 23 percent in the independent automotive parts sector
[3] In 1999 produced more than 3.0 million vehicles, accounting for 17 percent of total North American vehicle production. Production had fallen to 1.23 million vehicles (8.3% of North American production) by 2022 due to a net loss of 5 assembly facilities

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