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Auto workers expect fresh deals by autumn

The Canadian Auto Workers union expects to reach agreements with Detroit's three automakers this fall without a work stoppage, CAW president Ken Lewenza said this week at the opening of bargaining in Toronto.

The Canadian Auto Workers union expects to reach agreements with Detroit's three automakers this fall without a work stoppage, CAW president Ken Lewenza said this week at the opening of bargaining in Toronto.

CAW contracts with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler expire at midnight Sept. 17. The CAW usually is serious about sticking to the deadline.

GM's opening proposal expressed the importance of operations in Canada, but called for lower hourly labour costs because Canada has become one of the most expensive places to build vehicles.

A big factor is the strong Canadian dollar, essentially at par with the U.S. dollar. The loonie at this level is "unsustainable," Lewenza said, arguing that auto companies should not bargain a long-term agreement based on a currency the union thinks is 20 per cent overvalued.

Automakers say they must address higher labour costs whatever the cause.

Canadian workers do not have the same entrylevel or two-tier wage system the companies have in their contracts with the United Auto Workers union, which represents U.S. workers.

Lewenza said there are ways to be creative with the six-year progressive wage increase that new hires undergo in Canada, but he is opposed to twotier wages. "I think there will be a time of significant rebellion at places with a two-tier work system," he told reporters.

The CAW also is opposed to profit-sharing, which has been part of UAW agreements since the mid1980s.

There are other ways to address compensation. "In an ideal world," Lewenza said, he would love wage improvement and restoration of cost-of-living increases, benefits and bonuses. But, he said, he recognizes creativity will be needed.

After GM's opening salvo, which did not include specifics, "we are miles apart," Lewenza said of the start of talks.

The CAW is "not demanding everything back from 2009," Lewenza said. But the automakers have "no ethical right to demand more concessions" after the sacrifices union members have made in the past four years.

The union also wants continued commitment to manufacturing in Canada. According to media reports, GM is already dangling the carrot of keeping an assembly line at Oshawa, Ont., open beyond the scheduled June 2013 closing date.

Bargaining will continue at the local and subcommittee level next week as the national level leaders will be participating in the CAW's constitutional bargaining council convention.