Unifor's fight for future

Jerry Dias is fed up.

At labour rallies, press conferences, anywhere people might listen, the head of Unifor has for more than two months been expressing a deep frustration about how General Motors has broken one promise too many with its plan to close its Oshawa Assembly Plant.

"There's nobody on the face of this earth that lies more than General Motors," said Dias in a recent interview.

"That's why we're so furious, that's why we're running this campaign, and that's why we're slamming them every single day."

Last weekend's Super Bowl ad against GM, a walk-out at a parts supplier Friday, and the union's call for a partial boycott of GM vehicles are just the latest efforts to pressure the company financially, and to try and keep the looming closure of the storied plant in the eyes of the government and public.

GM, however, has shown no sign of wavering in its decision, maintaining that the shutdown is part of a needed effort to become more efficient, and that it has already committed to generous retraining and retirement packages.

With the two adversaries dug in, the dispute is likely to be a drawn out affair as Unifor looks to protect unionized jobs — and its reputation — amid a fast-evolving auto sector.

"It's really understandable why Unifor is all-in on this one," said Steven Tufts, an associate professor at York University who studies labour.

"For Unifor as a union, to make them more relevant, even to members outside of the auto sector, they have to show they can fight."

The union, however, is fighting against a shrinking company. In 2007 General Motors was the world's largest automaker, a titan of industry built on a century of development. But high-profile stumbles including its bankruptcy, bailout, and efforts to right the ship have left the company's production at about half of its peak.

Production cutbacks have had a direct effect on Canadian autoworkers, who have already endured closures or layoffs at several Ontario operations over the past decade. Dias maintains that several rounds of cuts have arrived not long after assurances from GM that they weren't coming. GM declined an interview request for this story.

The fight has an added level of tension for Unifor, since the share of unionized autoworkers has been shrinking for the past two decades as the Detroit three cut back, even as non-unionized Toyota and Honda have added volume in Ontario.

"For Unifor this is significant, because if the industry is shifting away from unionized to non-unionized, that's a big deal," said Charlotte Yates, an expert on auto industry labour issues at the University of Guelph.

The campaign also raises questions about priorities and focus at the union itself. Autoworkers only make up about 13 per cent of the membership following the mega-merger between the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada in 2013 to create 315,000-member strong Unifor.

"It's really about them fighting for the definition of what is the union based upon, and where is it going in the future," said Tufts.

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