April 15, 2004

A Cross-Border Battle of Auto Unions Heats Up


TORONTO, April 14 - Intensifying competition between American states and Canadian provinces for automotive jobs is helping to stoke two decades of discord between the unions that represent workers on each side of the border.

The latest salvo was fired on Wednesday, when the Ontario government disclosed a package of incentives valued at 500 million Canadian dollars ($371 million).

The incentives, covering training, environmental and infrastructure costs, among others, will be available to companies that invest at least 300 million Canadian dollars in a new project in Ontario, or create or protect more than 300 jobs. "Our strategy sends a message worldwide that when it comes to the auto industry, Ontario is in the game for keeps," said Dalton McGuinty, premier of Ontario.

Several states have similar programs. With the Big Three automakers shutting or combining some assembly lines and shrinking payrolls to control costs, there is rising competition for members between the United Automobile Workers, based in Detroit, and its counterpart, the Canadian Auto Workers.

Both unions are "fighting for the survival of their plants," said Felix Pilorusso, a Toronto auto industry consultant.

Animosity erupted recently over a U.A.W. recruiting drive at a Honda assembly plant in Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto.

"The logic of this escapes me," said Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, referring to the U.A.W. decision to set up an office near the Honda plant. "If the U.A.W. has decided they can try to expand in Canada, I don't see why we can't try to expand in the United States."

But in the view of Bill Pollock, who heads U.A.W. Local 251 in Wallaceburg, Ontario: "Buzz thinks they've got a franchise on organizing here, and they don't. It's just as much our backyard as theirs."

Mr. Pollock's local, which is leading the recruiting drive at Honda, was the only U.A.W. unit north of the border that opted to stay with the Detroit union when disgruntled Canadian workers broke away in 1985 after a disagreement over bargaining tactics at General Motors.

With employment shrinking in the auto industry, the Canadian union has moved aggressively into other areas, growing into Canada's biggest private-sector union. The auto industry now accounts for fewer than a third of its 250,000 members. The union also represents casino workers, miners and fishermen, among others, and Mr. Hargrove has played a prominent role in talks to realign Air Canada.

The U.A.W. has about 710,000 members, with 2,500 of them in Canada.

The competition for plants and jobs has been heightened by the integration of the North American auto industry over the last three decades. In most respects, the industry operates as if there were no border. Parts and vehicles are made in each country for sale on both sides of the border.

But since the American and Canadian unions went their separate ways, they have negotiated separate contracts with G.M., Ford Motor and DaimlerChrysler. Over the last 19 years, the U.A.W. and the C.A.W. have blown hot and cold at each other. On one hand, they joined forces a few years ago to organize workers at two parts makers, Magna International in Toronto and Johnson Controls in Milwaukee.

Mr. Hargrove said he had "a long friendship" with Steven P. Yokich, the president of the U.A.W. from 1995 to 2002. The unions shared research, and each leader addressed the other's annual convention.

Still, Douglas Fraser, a retired U.A.W. president, said "there have been some rocky patches." Mr. Fraser is now a professor of labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.

According to Mr. Hargrove, the Canadians have been unable to establish a rapport with the current president of the U.A.W., Ron Gettel- finger, who succeeded Mr. Yokich in 2002. Mr. Hargrove said Mr. Gettel-finger appeared to be offended last year by his suggestion that the U.A.W. play a more active role in the International Metalworkers Federation, an umbrella union body.

"I don't know whether it was that, or something else I said, but there hasn't been much contact since that time," Mr. Hargrove said.

Roger Kerson, a U.A.W. spokesman in Detroit, said Mr. Gettelfinger and other U.A.W. leaders had no comment on relations with the Canadian union or on the organizing effort at Honda.

Gordon Lilley, a U.A.W. organizer who leads the new office in Alliston, said the recruiting drive there had the full support of his colleagues in Detroit. "It comes right from the top," he said.

According to Mr. Fraser, the former U.A.W. president: "Gettelfinger is not about to stop them. If they could organize Honda, that would be wonderful." Despite numerous attempts, neither the American nor Canadian union has so far organized a plant owned solely by a foreign automaker.

Employment at plants owned by the Big Three has shrunk to a 10-year low, putting pressure on the unions as well as state and provincial governments to compete more vigorously for assembly plant jobs.

For instance, tensions between the American and Canadian unions rose in 2002 when Ford disclosed plans to shut a pickup assembly line in Oakville, Ontario. At the time, the plant was working only one shift. The Canadian union urged Ford to add a second shift, at the expense, if necessary, of one of its American plants.

But Ford is going ahead with its plans. The Ontario plant, with 1,300 workers, is due to close this summer. Several car plants, meanwhile, have recently opened or are under construction in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.

A project to redevelop another Ford plant in Oakville is expected to be one of the first targets of Ontario's new incentive package.

The Honda plant in Alliston, which employs about 4,200 people, is one of more than a dozen Japanese and European-owned assembly lines in North America where both unions have tried to persuade workers to unionize.

Jim Miller, a spokesman for Honda of Canada Manufacturing in Toronto, said, "We like to feel they're offered a competitive environment comparable to North American manufacturers, and that they don't need a third party to represent them."

Mr. Lilley, the U.A.W. organizer, said that workers at the Honda plant invited his union in October to come and talk to them.

Under Ontario law, a union is required to sign up at least 40 percent of a company's work force before a certification vote is held. But Mr. Lilley said the recruiting process has not yet reached that stage. "Our biggest goal right now is to reach the workers, talk to them and educate them," he said. "We're optimistic, or we wouldn't be here."

Still, in a sign that the union is not universally welcome, a U.A.W. billboard on a highway just outside Alliston was torn down last month.

According to Mr. Hargrove, "our information is that if they've got half a dozen cards, they're lucky."

As he sees it, the U.A.W. would be wise to stick to more potentially rewarding opportunities on its home turf. "There's an awful lot of unorganized plants in the United States," he said.


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