The UAW Has Modeled Rank-and-File Democracy. The Canadian Auto Union Should Match It.

In recent autoworker bargaining, the UAW and the Canadian union, Unifor, won groundbreaking deals. But Unifor should seek to match the UAW’s level of rank-and-file engagement going forward.

Unifor members and supporters on a picket line outside the General Motors Oshawa Assembly Complex in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, on October 10, 2023. (Cole Burston / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

With auto talks happening simultaneously in the United States and Canada, it’s been difficult to avoid comparisons between union demands, strategies, and now, newly negotiated deals on either side of the border.

Under the leadership of reformer Shawn Fain, the United Auto Workers (UAW) decided to bargain with and, ultimately, strike at Ford, General Motors (GM), and Stellantis simultaneously. The union adopted the innovative “stand-up strike” to exert pressure and hold the companies accountable based on their progress at the bargaining table. In contrast, Unifor followed the traditional pattern bargaining route. They initially secured a favorable agreement with Ford and subsequently extended it to the other two automakers after brief, hours-long job actions.

Both the Canadians and the Americans have thus far brought impressive deals back to their members. Where in previous bargaining rounds the unions made concessions or merely maintained the status quo, this time they capitalized on the opportunities provided by a relatively tight labor market and growing union support to compel the Big Three to offer better terms.

In this sense, it may ultimately turn out that the merits of the UAW and Unifor’s respective strategies are not reducible to quantifiable contract details alone. In other words, it’s a mistake to evaluate the two unions’ campaigns based solely on bargained gains, monetary or otherwise. Rather, what stands out about the UAW’s approach this time is the extent of membership engagement and the commitment to union transparency.

That Unifor was able to secure the agreements it has without a level of member participation comparable to the UAW’s is a testament to the Canadian union’s historical militancy. To meet future employer challenges, however, relying on past practices may not be enough. Unifor should allow and encourage the type of rank-and-file participation exemplified by the UAW.

Historical Starting Points

Drawing comparisons between the UAW and Unifor’s respective bargaining and strike strategies is complicated by the interconnected histories of the two unions. The decision of the Canadian Auto Workers (Unifor’s predecessor) to leave the UAW was in large part motivated by the Americans’ concessionary bargaining in the 1980s.

American autoworkers surrendered past gains on wages, pensions, and employment security much earlier than Canadians. Entering this round of negotiations, American autoworkers earned lower wages than Canadians across job classifications and had much weaker pension protections. The UAW thus had a much steeper hill to climb than Unifor, and not only on wages.

The American union’s comparatively bolder demands in this round of bargaining must be placed in this historical context to be fully understood and appreciated.

From the outset, Fain’s bargaining strategy has been intimately tied to the UAW’s preparations for strikes and job actions. Similar to the US Teamsters before them, the UAW proactively engaged its members well ahead of any “stand-up” strikes and established a unique approach where job actions were tied to progress at the bargaining. This approach differs from the standard bargaining practices commonly observed throughout North America. In contrast, Unifor appeared to make no such preparations, resorting to brief strikes only when GM, and then Stellantis, balked at specific aspects of the pattern deal signed at Ford.

The American auto union, which has a much more extensive legacy of givebacks and concessions to employers compared to its Canadian counterpart, had to contend with a correspondingly greater challenge. To achieve substantial improvements in bargaining and win back what had been surrendered over the preceding decades, a new direction was imperative.

Unifor’s Pattern Agreement at Ford

Unifor reached its deal with Ford on September 19, after extending bargaining for twenty-four hours and narrowly avoiding a strike. A slim majority of members ratified the contract after what some felt was a period of limited debate and rushed online voting.

At GM, the Canadian union struck briefly on October 10, but reached a tentative agreement just twelve hours later. Here, members were more unequivocal in their support, voting 80.5 percent in favor. Rounding out its auto negotiations, Unifor settled a tentative agreement with Stellantis on Monday, October 29, after briefly walking off the job at midnight the previous night. In both cases, the union was able to basically extend the precedent set at Ford.

While Unifor leadership characterized the pattern agreement struck first with Ford as “life-changing,” there was noticeable dissension and criticism from both members and commentators. Comparisons with the seemingly bolder demands of the UAW were widespread and were surely expected by Unifor’s leadership.

Unifor thus characterized the deal in its master bargaining report this way: “This three-year deal meets the extraordinary moment we are in. It addresses each of our core priorities and provides significant, and in some cases ground-breaking, gains for everyone — active and retired.”

On wages in particular, the union pitched its gains as “record-setting.” While this might be slightly hyperbolic, the wage settlement is nevertheless impressive. Unifor secured base wage increases of 10 percent in 2023, 2 percent in 2024, and 3 percent in 2025, for a total of 15 percent over the three-year contract. A cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will also be folded into the base wage rate before new increases apply. In addition, skilled trades workers will see special adjustments of 2.75 percent in 2023 and 2.5 percent in 2025, on top of their general wage increase. These are well above current average union wage settlements in Canada.

To put this in perspective, a full-time production worker currently earning $37.33 per hour will see their wage increase to at least $44.52 by the last year of the contract (before any further COLA increases are applied). A worker with a skilled trade will go from $44.77 to a minimum of $55.97 per hour in 2025. The union also negotiated the reactivation of a limited cost-of-living adjustment meant to provide some protection against inflation going forward, effective as of 2024. Notable improvements across the benefit package were also secured.

The contract additionally provides for a one-time “Quality and Productivity Bonus” of $10,000 paid to all permanent employees. When this bonus is combined with base wage increases and COLA payments, production and skilled trades workers will see over $40,000 and $57,000 in total salary increases over the life of the agreement, respectively.

Improvements to the wage progression system will also go a long way in equalizing compensation among members. Here, the central improvement is the compression of the wage scale from eight to four years. Whereas it previously took a newly hired full-time worker eight years to reach 100 percent of base pay, it will now take only four. In addition, the base percentage of new hires will be increased from 65 to 70 percent, with the base percentage growing in each of the following three years to achieve full pay in year four.

Several other smaller gains are also worth mentioning. Health care benefit deductibles, which can represent sizable payments depending on a person’s health needs, will be eliminated for all workers, retirees, and surviving spouses. Two new paid holidays will be added — Truth and Reconciliation Day and Family Day — while bereavement leave will increase from four to five days.

Pensions and Temps

The persistence of a temporary part-time (TPT) worker pool is likely to continue to sow disconnect among a sizable slice of Unifor members. Those with a TPT classification earn much lower wages and are either shut out of or receive reduced amounts of other benefits. For example, instead of the $10,000 bonus paid to full-time, permanent employees, TPT workers will receive a separate $4,000 quality and production bonus. Although Unifor negotiated additional contract language to limit company use of TPT workers, it remains uncertain whether this seriously impedes the growth of temporary work.

In the area of pensions, assessments have been more mixed. Pension improvements were a core priority for the union in this round of bargaining. Just as wages and employment security had been “tiered” in previous rounds, resulting in unequal wages for workers doing similar tasks, so too had retirement security been hollowed out for many. Defined benefit (DB) plans were replaced by defined contribution (DC) and hybrid plans, while inflation ate away at pension benefits.

In this round, Unifor managed to make various pension improvements. Retirees receiving a DB pension will see an increase of roughly 7 percent effective January 2024. Starting in 2025, workers hired after November 7, 2016, and currently enrolled in the DC plan will be transferred to a “defined benefit plus” (DBplus) plan, the immediate advantage of which is that it increases the employer’s mandatory contribution from 4 to 7 percent of earnings. However, workers will not be able to move prior pension contributions from the DC to the DBplus plan, leaving a good chunk of previous retirement savings less secure.

With this deal now extended to GM and Stellantis (though members at the latter still need to vote), Unifor may believe that standard bargaining practice was and will continue to be enough to protect the interests of autoworkers. If this is indeed the union leadership’s assessment of this round of negotiations, they could find themselves in trouble down the road.

The Benefits of the UAW Playbook

With worker’s expectations on the rise, it’s understandable that some have found fault with portions of the Unifor pattern agreements. The fact that these groundbreaking deals still leave workers wanting more reflects the evolving landscape of our times. Unions, including Unifor, should be capitalizing on this member militancy.

Perhaps the heaviest criticism leveled at Unifor, however, concerns the union’s perceived lack of transparency throughout the bargaining process, particularly when compared to the UAW’s regular outreach to members and weekly online updates. Unifor members commonly complained on the union’s social media accounts that there was very little time for members to discuss, debate, and vote on the Ford contract.

Indeed, Unifor president Lana Payne hinted at the possibility of members rejecting the Ford tentative agreement when interviewed by the Toronto Star just after the deal was announced. Payne indicated that the union would strive to prevent a rejection of the agreement. A relatively closed negotiation process and a perceived lack of transparency during ratification stood in stark contrast to the ongoing UAW bargaining and auto strikes in the United States.

The UAW’s more militant approach is a response to the legacy of its much deeper concessions and a new reform leadership willing to organize the membership against them. While Canadian autoworkers have sacrificed and lost important past gains as well, there was simply no sizable segment of the membership or leadership willing to organize against these setbacks.

For many this surely feels like an opportunity lost, despite the achievement of historic contract settlements. If Unifor had channeled member expectations and energy and deployed a bargaining and strike preparation strategy that looked more like the UAW, there could very well have been even more to celebrate. However, as the labor market starts to show signs of softening, some of that momentum may soon wane. With a three-year deal, the union leadership, and perhaps more importantly, Unifor members, will get a chance to reconsider their auto strategy in the not-too-distant future.