General Motors Co. auto workers went on strike at a Canadian plant for the first time in 21 years over jobs lost to Mexico, with the union’s president calling the situation “the poster child for what’s wrong with NAFTA.”
The strike, which started late on Sept. 17, will cut production of the Chevrolet Equinox, a key sport utility vehicle that the automaker just redesigned for the first time in seven years.
Unifor, which represents about 6,500 GM workers in Canada, said it wanted the automaker to give the plant another vehicle to build in place of the GMC Terrain, which was moved to Mexico earlier this year, costing the plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, 600 jobs. The union has been battling to stop a wave of auto jobs and investment moving to cheaper locations south of the border.
The union said it was urging GM to designate the Ingersoll plant, which has more than 3,000 employees, the lead producer of the Chevrolet Equinox, its top-selling SUV model. The Equinox is produced in both Canada and Mexico.
“If you can’t keep your jobs when you have the best plant in the world, then you’ve got a problem,” said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor.
The plant has won several quality awards from J.D. Power and is recognized as one of the most productive plants in the world, the union said. “This is really now about us saying, ‘Enough, you just gave us a solid blow with the Terrain and we’re not absorbing another one.”’
Dias has emerged as the face of labor during renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement, pushing for higher working standards in both the U.S. and Mexico.
Under NAFTA, Mexico’s light vehicle production more than tripled, from 1.1 million units in 1994 to about 3.5 million units in 2016, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Canada, meanwhile, lost more than 53,000 automotive jobs from 2001 to 2014, according to a study by the Automotive Policy Research Centre.
The Ingersoll factory was excluded from the labor agreements that Unifor struck with U.S. auto companies last year that secured more investment in Canada. GM agreed to invest C$554 million in its other Canadian operations, which include an assembly plant, an engine factory and a parts-distribution facility.
GM encouraged Unifor to resume negotiations for an agreement in a statement on its website. The company has two plants in Mexico making small SUVs including the Equinox, weakening the union’s bargaining position.
This is the first strike at a Canadian assembly plant since 1996 when Unifor’s forerunner, the Canadian Auto Workers, held a three-week walkout at GM.
U.S. sales of the Equinox jumped 17% this year through August, according to researcher Autodata Corp. The model is GM’s second-best seller, behind only the Chevrolet Silverado pickup.
By David Welch and Kristine Owram