Unifor threatens to protest GM at Detroit auto show

WINDSOR, Ont. — Unifor President Jerry Dias warned General Motors he would take his travelling protest show on the road, moving it from General Motors’ backyard in Windsor, Ont., to the automaker’s front porch next week at the Detroit auto show. 

The fiery union boss, during a rally Friday in Windsor with the automaker’s world headquarters in Detroit as a backdrop, didn’t divulge many details about the union’s auto show plan, but promised a union presence in Motown.

“We will be in Detroit. You can expect a lot of noise next week about vehicles built in Mexico,” Dias said after the rally, which drew by Unifor’s estimates 2,000 people and lasted less than an hour.

Dias spent several minutes attacking the automaker and its CEO Mary Barra for the November decision to close the Oshawa assembly plant in Ontario at the end of 2019. He then said he and his members would be “coming soon to a theater near you” and promised to get GM’s attention “in front of 8,000 reporters” descending on the Motor City for the auto show.

Dias said once again he isn’t calling for a boycott of General Motors vehicles — at least not, yet. That’s in contrast to a directive of the UAW in the U.S.

UAW Vice President Terry Dittes is urging union members and their families not to purchase the Mexico-made Chevrolet Blazer, which began arriving in U.S. showrooms last month.

In a Jan. 4 letter to members, obtained by Automotive News, the leader of the union’s UAW-General Motors Department, wrote he hoped “that not a single UAW member, family member ever purchase this vehicle unless it is made in the U.S.A. by our UAW members.”

Dias hasn’t played that card, yet. And, he wasn’t aware of the UAW’s call for a boycott.

“At this moment, we are not calling for a boycott of GM vehicles,” Dias said. “But we will absolutely be talking very shortly, based on General Motors’ decision, about whether or not Canadian and American consumers should be buying GM vehicles built in Mexico.”

One of Unifor’s proposals to save the Oshawa plant was to have GM move Blazer production there from Mexico. 

Meeting with Barra

Dias also demanded a meeting with Barra and called on the Canadian and Ontario governments to facilitate the meeting. Barra has yet to speak directly with Dias, he said. She was not part of either of two meetings union officials have had with GM executives in Detroit since Dec. 20.

“We will meet with Mary Barra before this is over,” Dias vowed. “The message that Mary Barra has not met with us yet is one of total disrespect.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford — who said about saving the plant: “The ship has already left the dock”  — have been relatively quiet about the matter and Dias demanded to meet with them, too. He says hard-working Canadians need the government’s help now more than ever.

Other speakers Friday, including Oshawa Plant Chair Greg Moffat and OPSEU President Smokey Thomas, both criticized Trudeau and Ford for what they considered a lack of action.

Transition, training, retirement

Meanwhile, GM, which rejected several Unifor proposals the union says would keep the plant operational, is encouraging Unifor to work with it in finding jobs for the 2,600 employees who will be affected by the closure.GM said it is willing to cover the cost for retraining affected employees, and is open to negotiations on packages for workers on top of what is already included in contracts.

The company also said about half of the 2,600 hourly workers are eligible for a pension. Retirement benefits include about $3,500 a month, a $20,000 car voucher, and a lump sum payment of about $50,000, GM spokesman David Paterson said earlier this month.

Unifor officials didn’t specifically say how many are eligible to retire but said not all will meet the requirements for $3,500 a month. Some, the union said, will only get $700 a month.

GM’s ongoing restructuring, which includes reducing its North American salaried workforce by 15 percent and closing five plants, will result in cost-savings between $2 billion and $2.5 billion this year, CFO Dhivya Suryadevara said during a media briefing Friday morning.

Plants slated for closure include Lordstown, Ohio; Detroit-Hamtramck, Mich.; Warren, Mich., White Marsh, Mich.; and Oshawa.

In a briefing for reporters before the presentation in New York, Barra said Friday the automaker has 2,700 jobs at other factories for the 3,300 U.S. factory workers slated for layoff. About 1,500 workers have expressed interest in moving to other plants, and 700 already have been placed, she said. Another 1,200 are eligible to retire, she said.

In Canada, about half the 2,600 workers in Oshawa are eligible to retire and the automaker has pledged millions to help find jobs for the remaining hourly workers.

Barra also said the company doesn’t foresee any further job cuts through 2020. 

GM said in November it would stop the truck shuttle program that sees the automaker ship unfinished outgoing models of the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado to Oshawa from a plant in Indiana. The automaker also said it will stop building the Chevy Impala and Cadillac XTS, both of which are assembled in Oshawa.

GM Canada said in a statement “economic factors created an imperative need to consolidate operations, reduce costs and improve cash flow.”