At half-past midnight on September 20th, the framework of a tentative agreement was reached between Unifor and General Motors that narrowly averted a strike.
The Unifor Local 222 union hall in Oshawa erupted with cheers, then quickly fell silent as our mobilized strike teams waited with bated breath for more details.
Our national president Jerry Dias claimed a historic victory for workers with hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments along with product coming north to Canada and ending the traditional direction of capital flight. Hundreds of new hires were finally being made “whole”, effectively undoing the damage and fractured solidarity foisted upon us by an unequal tiered workforce.
In that instant, all of the rage, anxiety, and desperation was folded into a jubilant sigh of relief. We had finally got what we deserved. We were told that no victory of this size comes without a cost, and that we had conceded defined benefit pension plans for new hires who would instead now receive a defined contribution pension.
Many of us remained skeptical; in any collective bargaining agreement the devil is in the details, and this was certainly no exception.
As I walked into the plant for my shift on Friday, I was handed an AutoTalks leaflet from one of my reps which highlighted the gains we stand to make under this tentative agreement.
My eye was immediately drawn to a section titled “Improvements to the New Hire Program”. Before I talk about what we gained, I have to talk about the mandate workers on the shop floor gave to our bargaining team when we filled out our demand sheets several months before negotiations had begun.
We were exceedingly clear that we weren’t searching for “improvements for new hires”—we were demanding the abolition of a tiered and divided workforce altogether; the end of the Supplemental Workforce Employees category. For over a decade now we’ve been asking for something that is fundamental to the core principles of unionism; real equality. Equal pay for equal work and an end to the tiered workforce.
What we’ve “gained” now is the loss of all previous service time, which for second-tier Supplemental Workforce Employees hired after 2006 means starting all over again without recognition for upwards of a decade of their lives.
This means that the ten-year wage progression we’ve just “won” will convert SWE’s to permanent status as seniority employees. For many this has now become a 20-year wage progression—that’s half of the working life of most people. Over the course of those ten years, we will all lose in the neighbourhood of $200,000 in wage earnings alone.
New name, same problem
The tiered worker problem is not fixed; we just have a new name. If the agreement is ratified we will have the same rights as our better-paid coworkers on the shop floor.
We will have the same benefits, although we must wait one year for dental coverage to kick in. After three years we will finally have access to Short Work Week, which supplements our incomes when we are sent home early by the company. After six years we will have access to Supplemental Unemployment Benefits (SUB) pay which tops up our Employment Insurance when we are on layoff.
We will receive a general wage increase of 2% effective immediately and by the end of the first four years Tier 1 and Tier 2 SWE’s will be on equal footing- still around $9.00 short of what full seniority employees make today for doing the exact same work we do.
Our pensions today, your pensions tomorrow
While this is a step towards equality, many of us simply have a hard time swallowing the idea of giving another decade in the pursuit of what we already deserved a decade ago.
We will finally have a pension – although a defined contribution plan is more like a glorified RRSP than a real pension.
When postal workers were in the fight of their lives against a ruthless Canada Post, they drew a line in the sand and refused to sell out the next generation of workers who deserve the same retirement security as all of those who came before them.
In the auto industry however, the loss of this pension was a foregone conclusion that we’ve been hearing about for years.
While some people have said we should be grateful for any pension at all, there is something crucial about this that must be understood: They will eventually come for the defined benefit pensions too.
When that day comes, they will ask us to trade an aging minority’s retirement security for our production security. Many of us will flatly refuse to do this out of union principle, but when new hires on a wage progression constitute a majority in the plant and have been the cannon fodder in every collective agreement they’ve been a part of, there may be very little to stand in the way of the company’s demands.
Setting a precedent
We have been told by countless full seniority sisters and brothers that if we second class Supplemental Workforce Employees weren’t made “whole” in this agreement, they would strike for us. Now that we are coming to cash in those solidarity cheques many are being left with a great deal of uncertainty.
The disappointment in this agreement can be seen in the tears of workers left feeling betrayed, the lives put on hold by young workers looking to start families of their own, and the righteous indignation of workers who have simply had enough of being second class in a union shop.
We’ve been told that we have finally secured the footprint of General Motors in Canada, and we have. That footprint can now be seen on the backs of Supplemental Workforce Employees across the province.
Vote it down
The danger set out by this agreement will be felt by our fellow workers at both Ford and Chrysler as pattern bargaining brings forward similar arrangements for their workers. This tentative agreement is about much more than workers in General Motors. It will have implications for the entire auto industry in Canada for generations to come, and other sectors of the economy where employers want to divide workforces and drive down wages and benefits.
Tomorrow, we must vote this down and take a stand against any tentative agreement that defies a fundamental core principle of unionism- equal pay for equal work. It’s time for us to draw that line in the sand, and hold it.