Unifor National President Jerry Dias doesn’t mince words when it comes to the critics who said he was not doing enough to save Oshawa Assembly Plant from General Motors’ ax.

“My critics can kiss my ass,” Dias told the Free Press on Monday, the same day his union was voting overwhelmingly to approve a contract with GM for Canadian autoworkers. “The same people who said I didn’t do enough, will say the deal we got … we should have done something different. I am in a situation where I have to find real solutions and make real decisions. I don’t live in a world of rainbows and unicorns.”

Dias’ no-nonsense rebuff to the harsh criticism he faced in a recent documentary about the union’s failed fight to save Oshawa came as 1,600 Unifor-represented workers at GM Canada were voting to ratify a three-year deal that delivers what is almost unheard of — it restarts an assembly line after GM had already decided to idle it.

GM’s decision to turn the tide at Oshawa, located about 40 miles east of Toronto near the Lake Ontario shoreline, was all the more shocking considering Unifor’s rancorous fight with the automaker in the winter of 2018. But by late spring 2019, the venom had melted into an affable dialogue between the union that represents Canada’s autoworkers and GM, ultimately leading to Oshawa’s resurrection from the dead in this fall’s contract negotiations. 

“This has been a reversal of fortunes,” Dias said. “During the last 10 years, as the auto industry was at its highest, related to volume, we kept losing jobs in Canada. So this is a stark reversal.”

But on the Michigan side of the Detroit River, Unifor’s good fortune was a gut-wrenching blow to some UAW members who harbor bitter resentment toward GM for refusing to change course on its plans to lock the doors on the Lordstown Assembly plant in Ohio. A 40-day nationwide strike last year by 48,000 UAW members during contract talks helped to save Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant from extinction. But GM did not bend on Lordstown.

“I wish to God we were in the same situation as Oshawa,” said Tommy Wolikow after hearing the news about GM rebooting that plant. Wolikow worked at Lordstown for years then transferred to GM’s Flint Assembly when GM closed Lordstown.

Here is how Dias and Unifor defied the odds to score big wins with the Detroit Three, including securing battery-electric vehicles at Ford Motor Co.’s Oakville Assembly plant in Ontario, adding a shift at a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ plant in Windsor, but most notably its triumphant turnaround with GM.

No magic bullet

Dias, 62, has been heading Unifor since its inception seven years ago. He is a dichotomy who will share his opinion on just about anything, yet refuses to reveal his marital or family status, saying he keeps his personal life intensely private. 

He may be a bit gruff, plain-spoken and cocky on the surface, but he offsets it with humility when pressed to define his accomplishments. He will chalk up his wins to simply knowing when to play hardball and when to be nice. He understands the politics of products in Canada and the economics that drive decisions. And he will give credit to an act of God over himself. For example, he said, GM changed course on Oshawa not because of any “magic bullet” in his negotiation tactics, but because of the unplanned event that benched the world: the coronavirus pandemic.

“When COVID hit the assembly plants, all of them went out and the unexpected piece of this was that no one expected vehicle sales would go through the roof because people are afraid to take an Uber or a taxi because of concern over COVID,” Dias said.

In short, GM needs to make more of the highly profitable full-size pickups fast to meet consumer demand. 

Winning the prize

On Monday, Unifor-represented GM workers ratified the contract with GM with an 85% in-favor vote.  

The contract achieved many of the same gains that Unifor won in previous weeks with Ford and FCA — a 5% hourly wage increase, a $7,250 signing bonus, $4,000 inflation bonus, shift premiums and the restoration of the 20% wage differential for skilled trades. Beyond that GM agreed to the following with all figures in Canadian dollars:

  • GM will invest $1.3 billion in Oshawa Assembly to restart production of pickups in 2022, bringing back 1,700 jobs there.
  • GM will invest about $109 million in St. Catharines Propulsion Plant near Niagara Falls for new transmission work for the Chevrolet Equinox and a new program to build transmissions for the Chevrolet Corvette. Continued V8 engine production.
  • GM to upgrade its Woodstock Parts Distribution Centre. 

GM CEO Mary Barra explained the contract to Wall Street during a Nov. 5 third-quarter earnings call: “We have been operating our full-size pickup plants around the clock to meet exceptionally robust demand for the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra in the United States and Canada. The fact is we simply can’t build enough. And because we expect demand to remain strong, we must increase our capacity.”

GM assembles its light-duty pickups at its Fort Wayne Assembly plant in Indiana and Silao Assembly Plant in Mexico. Flint Assembly builds GM’s heavy-duty models. Barra told analysts once Unifor members ratified the deal, GM will move quickly at Oshawa. 

“We expect construction to begin on the new body shop and flexible assembly module at Oshawa immediately upon ratification,” Barra said. “When the plant comes back online in early 2022, we will see a significant increase in our full-size pickup production capacity.”

GM’s eagerness made it easy for Dias to get a deal, in what he characterized as “cordial and respectful” negotiations. He made some concessions but, “ultimately the prize was reopening the plant. We outsourced some stuff, which we didn’t want to do, but we didn’t give up any wages. It was about us finding some middle ground to reopen the plant.”

Some of Unifor’s leverage rested in the fact that the Detroit Three saw the importance of Canada as a market, he said.

“We’re one of their bigger global markets,” Dias said. “I wish I could say I was fabulous and I did something that turned the tide, but GM needed the volume.”

Hit pause, deep breath

GM’s readiness to start retooling the plant immediately indicates that, “this didn’t just come down to the brass tactics of negotiations,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of Industry, Labor & Economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

“They had to be cooking this up for a while,” Dziczek said. “But they may have been cooking it up with Unifor, they are partners and they could have been talking about it for some time.”

Dias indicates that the union and the automaker did open the lines of communication ahead of the talks despite the union’s belligerence toward the automaker in November 2018 after GM said it would idle Oshawa. 

“We had a hell of a dustup,” Dias said, referring to Unifor’s multiple worker protests at GM Canada’s headquarters, Dias’ call to boycott buying GM vehicles and a negative media campaign. “There’s no question there was a lot of animosity flying around. But we hit the collective pause button, took a step back and a deep breath.”

By May 2019, Unifor and GM settled on keeping Oshawa partly operating as an aftermarket parts assembler, saving about 300 jobs. GM agreed to “maintain the integrity of the plant,” which means an ability to build vehicles there, Dias said. 

Still, an automaker agreeing to reopen a plant is “pretty striking,” Dziczek said. It’s happened, but not often. Most recently, in 2019, the UAW negotiated to stop GM from shuttering Detroit-Hamtramck. Instead, GM agreed to invest $2.2 billion to retool the plant to build electric vehicles and renamed it Factory ZERO. It was the only one of four U.S. plants GM slated to close that was saved in negotiations.

GM closed Baltimore Transmission and Lordstown Assembly, selling the latter to Lordstown Motors. It also closed its Warren Transmission plant, but then repurposed it this spring to make face mask during the pandemic.

The Detroit-Hamtramck save was “huge,” Dziczek said. GM has said it will eventually employ 2,200 people after it starts running later next year, building first the 2021 GMC Hummer electric pickup.

There are other examples too. During Chrysler’s 2009 bankruptcy, it doomed its Sterling Heights Assembly plant to the bankruptcy assets, Dziczek said. But FCA’s then-CEO Sergio Marchionne bought the plant out of those assets to keep it running. FCA builds the Ram pickup there.

GM’s move to all-electric

GM’s decision to restart Oshawa’s pickup production comes down to three things, said Harley Shaiken, a business professor who specializes in labor at the University of California, Berkeley.

First, GM’s insatiable need for more pickups, the sales of which are funding GM’s transition to an all-electric and self-driving car company in the future.

“These pickups, lightweight and heavy-duty, are a license to print money and GM needs funds for the huge transition to electric and autonomous vehicles it’s making,” Shaiken said.

To that end, Canada is important, Shaiken said. The Detroit Three have been reducing employment in the country as they shifted production to Mexico in the last decade, he said. So now it’s time to make nice.

“GM does not want to antagonize the Canadian government because you never know when you’ll need that government,” Shaiken said.

For example, as GM and Ford push to transition to electric cars, having the support of a government to create infrastructure and other incentives that encourage consumers to buy EVs is beneficial, he said.

“Finally, it is the union, Unifor,” Shaiken said. “They bargained effectively and they built a relationship with GM where GM was confident this would be a good decision. They won a lot in this round of negotiations as a result.”

Ford dodged a strike

Unifor started negotiations with Ford, the company that led the way in pattern bargaining with the Detroit Three, shortly after Dias moved into the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel on Aug. 24. There, he lived out of a suitcase and worked long days conducting negotiations with the carmakers there. He didn’t return to his house in Toronto even once until the morning of Nov. 9.

Unifor reached a three-year deal with Ford, FCA and then GM. The agreements cover about 17,000 Unifor members at the Detroit Three.

The most significant win in the FCA deal was the return of a third shift at the Windsor Assembly Plant by 2024 and as many as 2,000 jobs. Also FCA agreed to launch a new platform to build plug-in hybrid and/or battery-electric vehicles.

Dias also achieved a milestone agreement with Ford. Ford will invest $1.5 billion (U.S.) to bring battery-electric vehicle production to its Oakville Assembly plant in Ontario and a new engine derivative to Windsor. 

An investment of $590 million ($451.4 million U.S.) by the federal and provincial governments to help bring those electric vehicles to Oakville locked down the Unifor/Ford agreement.

“We bargained. The timing for us was important, we really pushed battery-electric vehicles,” Dias said. “The other side of things was our government. They started to be fairly aggressive themselves and reach out to the manufacturers.”

Unifor bargained with Ford first because Ford was looking to discontinue the Edge built at Oakville. So Dias said his focus became, ‘What the hell are they going to replace it with?’ ” 

Oakville is Ford’s only assembly plant in Canada, so closing it would have caused, “one hell of a dustup,” Dias said. “Ford knew there’d be a strike in Canada for sure if they planned on closing Oakville.  So it never got close to it and Ford started to work with us immediately to find a solution.”

The Canadian government’s willingness to invest in the plants was long overdue, Dias said, pointing out how in the United States many states are “tripping over themselves to attract the auto industry” by offering incentives to carmakers to build factories.

 “We’re starting to get in the game,” Dias said of Canada’s government. “That’s helped us tremendously.”

‘Kick in the gut’

The Oshawa restart is Dias’ crown jewel of the negotiations. When he made the announcement, the 300 people still working in Oshawa’s plant were high-fiving and celebrating, he said, and “it was a very emotional day.”

But stateside, Mike Yakim, who is an hourly worker at GM’s Lansing Delta Township plant, had no joy in hearing the news. Yakim had worked at GM’s Lordstown Assembly where GM made the Chevrolet Cruze compact car until March 2019 when GM shut it down.

“It rubs salt in the wound,” said Yakim, in reaction to GM’s move to restart Oshawa. “I had a lot of texts from my friends saying, ‘Do you believe this shit? This is bullshit.’ But what can you do? You can’t change it. But I can tell you, it hurt real bad.”

Likewise, Tim O’Hara, who served as UAW Local 1112 president in Lordstown from July 2019 to August 2020, said he received many disheartened text messages from union members when they heard the news that GM had reversed course on Oshawa.

The texts “used language that I can’t share for print,” O’Hara said. “I can say, as a union member I am happy for Canada, but it’s still a kick in the gut for us.”

Tommy Wolikow, who moved his family to Flint so he could build GM’s heavy-duty pickups after losing his job at Lordstown last year, said the news worries him.

In 2016, GM told Lordstown workers that the Cruze sales were so hot, GM’s Ramos Arizpe Assembly plant in Mexico would help make it, Wolikow said. But the following year, GM laid off its third shift of workers at Lordstown, citing a drop in demand for passenger cars. Wolikow suspects more was behind it.

“Any time you have another plant building the same vehicle that you’re building, there’s a chance of losing shifts or the company decides things are working out better at the other plant, so they give them the extra vehicles to make,” said Wolikow. 

But UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said, “We are not aware of any rumor regarding (production) shifts like that and we do not expect that anything like that will happen.”

Cost and capacity

Dias has sympathy for his stateside brothers and sisters whom fortune did not favor.

“My friends with the UAW build incredible vehicles. I can see how that would be discouraging,” Dias said. “But the other side of it is that we’re different countries. We’re probably $20 an hour cheaper to build a vehicle than it is in the U.S., so I think that plays a role.”

Shaiken agreed, saying Canada’s national health care system delivers a huge cost savings for GM.

Also, Lordstown was a tremendously large plant with capacity to build 450,000 cars, Dziczek said, whereas Oshawa has a 200,000- to 250,000-unit capacity and Factory ZERO is 160,000-unit capacity.

“GM doesn’t want to have a lot of capacity laying around. It’s costly to be running below 80% utilization,” Dziczek said. “If you’re running a one-shift plant, you’re not making any money. You have to be using at least 80% of the equipment.”

In the future, Unifor and the UAW contracts with the Detroit Three will now all expire at the same time, allowing the two unions a chance at collaboration for more favorable terms.

Until then, there is one lingering question that Dias dodges: What happens if demand for pickups evaporates and GM no longer needs Oshawa’s help assembling trucks?

“I’m not even going down that rabbit hole,” Dias said. “I am not even thinking about what happens years down the road if demand for pickups dries up.”

For now, Dias savors his victory amid unpacking his suitcases and tossing clothes in his laundry, finally back home and eager to get one good night’s sleep at last. 

“I might treat myself to two good nights,” Dias joked. “You put in 18-hour days every day, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the nature of the beast and if I’m not going 100 mph, I’m bored to tears.”

More: Lordstown workers vow to push for contract rejection; factory to remain closed

More: General Motors to reopen assembly operations at Oshawa following Unifor negotiations

More: Canadian autoworkers ratify contract with General Motors; Oshawa Assembly to reopen

More: Ford wage, benefits fuel union buzz at Honda, Toyota, says Unifor leader

Staff writer Eric D. Lawrence contributed to this report

Contact Jamie L. LaReau: 313-222-2149 or Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter. Become a subscriber.

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