TORONTO — The head of the Canadian Auto Workers says he doesn’t want to speculate on what the union will give up in negotiations with Chrysler, which were set to resume Monday after a three-week break.
Ken Lewenza has previously insisted that his union will stick to the pattern established in a deal with General Motors last month, but he seemed to soften his stance Monday.
“I don’t want to speculate at this particular time,” Lewenza said at a news conference when asked whether he would refuse to bend from pattern bargaining.
“Things are shifting enormously, especially with our UAW colleagues in the U.S.”
The United Auto Workers — the CAW’s sister organization in the United States — has so far been unable to reach a deal with either GM or Chrysler.
Lewenza said the CAW is willing to do what it takes to make sure unionized plants in Canada are competitive with unionized plants in the U.S., but it’s hard to know what that will be until the UAW has formalized its own agreement with the troubled automakers.
Chrysler Canada has insisted that it needs to reduce its all-in labour costs, currently pegged at $76.14 an hour, by $19 to be competitive with non-unionized assembly plants in Canada — a different measure of competitiveness than the CAW is using.
The agreement between GM and the CAW reduces that company’s labour costs by about $7 an hour, but CEO Fritz Henderson has said several times that the deal is competitive.
Chrysler has been backed up in its demands by both potential partner Fiat and the federal government. If Chrysler can’t reach an agreement with its unions and cement an alliance with Fiat by the end of the month, governments in Canada and the U.S. have said they won’t provide the company with long-term assistance. If this happens, it’s likely Chrysler will be forced to file for bankruptcy protection and maybe even liquidate its assets.
But Lewenza said reducing labour costs by $19 an hour is simply “not feasible,” and the union already provided the company with millions of dollars in cost savings in an agreement negotiated a year ago which froze wages until 2011 and reduced paid time off, among other things.
He said the union is under a “significant amount of pressure” to reach an agreement by the end of this week so Chrysler can complete its restructuring plans by the April 30 deadline.
“Both the provincial and federal governments contacted us on the weekend, insisting that the agreement come sooner rather than later,” Lewenza said.
He said the union is prepared to bargain, but accused Chrysler of negotiating in bad faith and deliberately using the CAW as a scapegoat for the company’s problems. Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli and president Tom LaSorda said in a letter to employees last week that the company could go out of business if it can’t reach a deal with the CAW.
Ontario Economic Development Minister Michael Bryant said Monday that there need to be concessions from all stakeholders if Chrysler wants to receive long-term government support.
“It is absolutely the case that everybody has to come to the table. There has to be equality of sacrifice,” Bryant said. “I’m hopeful that that’s going to happen.”
The federal and Ontario governments have already lent $750 million to Chrysler Canada of $1 billion promised. The governments have also given GM Canada $3 billion to draw upon when needed.
Chrysler employs about 9,000 hourly workers at assembly plants in Windsor, Ont., and Brampton, Ont., and at a casting plant in Toronto.