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Cami strike 'very unusual,' could become 'untenable' for workers, expert says

By Dan Brown, Jennifer Bieman, The London Free Press

An enormous group of protesters gather in front of the Ingersoll Cami plant on Friday. (BRUCE CHESSELL/Sentinel-Review)

An enormous group of protesters gather in front of the Ingersoll Cami plant on Friday. (BRUCE CHESSELL/Sentinel-Review)

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Ingersoll’s mayor says the Southwestern Ontario community of 13,000 is feeling the pinch from the strike by Cami workers, now in its fourth week.

“We’re feeling the effects, whether it’s at our grocery stores or commercial outlets downtown,” Mayor Ted Comiskey said Tuesday.

Comiskey understands money is tight for the 2,800 workers who walked out Sept. 17 and there’s not much he can do to bridge the gap between what he calls a strong union and a private employer.

“We really don’t have a place at that table,” the mayor said, though he hopes talks don’t break off.

“I’m a talker. So I hope they keep talking,” he said. “I’m sure they have a feeling for all the folks that are affected by (the strike). They’re good people.”

The union representing striking workers at the Cami assembly plant in Ingersoll and General Motors Canada remained “apart” on economics and job security as they returned to the bargaining table Tuesday, the local union president said.

About 15 Unifor representatives and 10 or 12 from the automotive giant resumed formal talks at 8 a.m. in Woodstock, the union’s Local 88 president, Dan Borthwick, said.

“We’re having discussions,” he said. “We’re planning to meet the entire week as long as talks progress.”

The union said both sides had “worked through a lot of the contract language,” but remained at odds on job security and economic issues, including wages and benefits.

At least one analyst is baffled by the long strike.

“It’s very unusual given the type of labour relations we’ve had over the last decade or so,” said labour analyst Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “This is very unusual.”

GM has made recent investments at the Cami plant, one that it views favourably, she said. The plant also produces a popular vehicle. So Dziczek never anticipated a strike there.

The key may be that GM wants to avoid setting a precedent on contractually guaranteed employment. “That sets up an untenable situation,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what to do in the union’s shoes.”

Dziczek notes the same type of job-security guarantees — an idea that originated in Japan — were tried by the United Auto Workers south of the border, with generally unfavourable results. Carmakers ended up inventing make-work projects for auto workers who had been ensured work, even amid slowdowns. Some ended up being sent into communities to do things such as mow the lawns of churches.

“It’s NAFTA in a microcosm,” Dziczek said of the situation. “It’s highlighting bigger issues that can’t be solved at the bargaining table,” she added. “These are international relations and political issues, not industrial issues.”

The union wants GM to guarantee it will build more Equinox vehicles at the Ingersoll assembly plant than in Mexico.

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CAMI AND THE STRIKE

  • General Motors-owned Ingersoll plant opened in 1989
  • 2,800 unionized workers, 300 salaried staff
  • Builds the Equinox crossover SUV, work the employees want preserved in Ingersoll
  • Strike began Sept. 17 over job security and monetary issues
  • Last strike, 25 years ago, lasted five weeks.