'Seize the moment': Unifor boss on what U.S. auto strikes mean for Canada

Pensions, job security remain the top concerns among her membership, says Lana Payne

Labour experts say the United Auto Workers plans for limited strikes in the U.S. strengthen Unifor's position bargaining position in Canada. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby)
Labour experts say the United Auto Workers plans for limited strikes in the U.S. strengthen Unifor's bargaining position in Canada. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby)

Unifor national president Lana Payne says she's ready to "seize the moment" for Canadian auto workers as some of their American peers form picket lines over pay, pensions, and working hours.

Labour experts say the United Auto Workers (UAW) plans for limited strikes against Ford (F), General Motors (GM), and Jeep-maker Stellantis (STLA) strengthen her position in Unifor's ongoing talks with Ford.

"We've always had a strong hand," Payne told Yahoo Finance Canada in an interview on Friday. "We've gone through many decades in which working people were barely keeping pace with inflation. During that time, we have seen inequality grow, and we have seen corporations do very well."

This is the first time since 1999 that Canadian and U.S. auto workers are negotiating agreements at the same time. Unifor represents about 18,000 Canadian auto workers employed by the Detroit Three. Its agreement with Ford is set to expire on Sept. 18 at 11:59 p.m. Under a "pattern bargaining" strategy, a new deal between Ford and the union will inform Unifor negotiations currently on hold with Stellantis and General Motors.

At midnight on Thursday, the American UAW made history by electing to strike across all three Detroit automakers, with about 13,000 workers already hitting the picket lines in Michigan, Ohio and Missouri. Following a "stand up" strategy, the union representing 147,000 U.S. auto employees aims to sow confusion at the Detroit Three by calling on local chapters to "stand up" and walk off the job at different times.

For now, Payne says the three U.S. locations chosen for strikes by the UAW will have no impact on operations in Canada. But given the highly integrated nature of the sector, she adds that could quickly change if the situation escalates.

"We won't know until it happens," Payne said. "We'll be looking at every decision they make."

“We’re going to keep pushing to seize the moment for our members here in Canada . . . We’re going down to the wire.”Unifor national president Lana Payne

Labour experts who spoke to Yahoo Finance Canada ahead of Thursday's announcement say the UAW's "militant" strategy under president Shawn Fain paves the way for Unifor to negotiate more favourable terms for workers in Canada.

"It's clear the UAW is in the driver's seat at this point," said Larry Savage, chair of the Department of Labour Studies at Brock University. "The UAW's militancy is likely to have a positive spillover effect for Unifor, in the sense that it will help bolster Unifor's bargaining demands north of the border."

Stephanie Ross, a labour studies professor at McMaster University, agrees.

"There's no question that Canadian auto workers will benefit from a more militant UAW. They will be able to up their price for labour peace in Canada," she said in an interview.

Payne says pensions remain the top concern among her membership, as well as job security amid the industry-wide transition to electric vehicles (EVs).

"The two economic offers that we've received from Ford have been rejected," she said. "We have, particularly around pensions, a lot of issues there. [We're] nowhere close to an offer to address what we brought to the table. That's kind of where we are."

Ross says the UAW's more combative posture under Fain amounts to a "180-degree shift" from the industry's previous meekness amid threats of job losses and plant closures. The Detroit Three's gradual pivot to EV production has also emboldened workers, she adds.

"[Their] job security can rest with a kind of production that serves environmental sustainability," Ross said. "It gives them a lot more confidence that their jobs are going to be there, even as they take this action, because automakers need to make EVs."

"They need our members to make this transition work," Payne said.

Both Savage and Ross say the labour unrest in North America's auto sector comes from a confluence of factors, including retribution for past concessions by workers on pay and conditions, an economy marked by low unemployment and high inflation, and a string of recent organized labour victories.

"We're going to keep pushing to seize the moment for our members here in Canada," Payne said. "We're going down to the wire."

Jeff Lagerquist is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow him on Twitter @jefflagerquist.

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