Unifor tests its mettle in Toyota organizing campaign

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Photo: Unifor

After almost 30 years and several attempts to organize the Toyota plants in Cambridge, the organizers behind Unifor's current campaign are getting a good feeling about this effort.

"I think we're closer than we've ever been," said Darryl Watkins. He's been a contract worker at the plant for the last 21 months where he delivers parts from incoming trucks to the line. He's also been actively involved with organizing the union.

The drive at Toyota plants in Cambridge, run in conjunction with a plant in Woodstock, has become the centrepiece organizing campaign for Unifor, the union born of the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworks Union (CEP) just six months ago. For the new union, this is their first high profile test of organizing strength.

The history of organizing at Toyota in Ontario goes back to the late 1980s, when the Japanese automaker first began to open plants in North America. Initially, their employee agreements were very similar to the collective agreements that unions like CAW had in place with the big three automakers.

As a result, any attempts to organize the plants in Woodstock or Cambridge were hindered since many workers didn't necessarily see the need for a union.
 But as the auto industry has declined, so have the rights and wages normally enjoyed by its workers.

"Toyota has got the ability to unilaterally make changes in the workplace whether it's good for the employees or not," said John Aman, the director of organizing at Unifor. "All that has culminated into workers at Toyota saying they don't like the patterns they are seeing."

At the Toyota plants in Cambridge, the workers are fighting for higher wages, as well as better benefits and protections for contract workers. Toyota did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

As of press time, Aman says that over 3,000 workers at all the plants have signed their union cards, which they believe puts them close to the 40 per cent threshold they need to pass in order to proceed to a certification vote.
 The new campaign has also been helped in large part by the considerable resources Unifor has committed to the workers.

In forming the new union, Unifor delegates and executives at the founding convention voted to make organizing new workers a key part of the union's long-term strategy, devoting ten per cent of all revenue to organizing, which works out to about $10 million.

Since that convention six months ago, this campaign represents one of their largest organizing efforts.

"Any campaign of this magnitude does take significant resources especially if you want to do it right," said Aman. "But that's the mandate that our union has received from our membership and leadership. We're not throwing good money away -- we're utilizing the resources in a smart fashion trying to assist employees at Toyota."

One of the challenges for the two organizers is fighting the misconceptions of unions held by people both inside and outside the plants.

"I think it is because a lot of people are afraid of change or they have heard negative media portrayals of unions," said Watkins.

The organizing campaign has drawn comparisons to the failed United Auto Workers campaign to organize a Volkswagon plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee earlier this year. In that case, outside interference played a large role in the failure of the union to win their certification vote. 

However, while the scope and importance of the campaigns are certainly similar, Unifor organizers have not experienced the kind of outside antagonism that was so crucial in turning the tide in Chattanooga.

But they still want to make sure that the wider public is aware of the benefits of having a union at the plants in Cambridge.

They are also not worried about a negative response from Toyota management -- Aman noted that since the campaign has been revived, the company has been a good employer and not interfered with the vote process.

But the biggest hurdle for these organizers is proving that Unifor can do what it said it was going to do -- organize new workers.

"It's going to be hard to go back because we've been going at it for almost a year and half now and it's been a long haul," said Watkins. "At the end of the day I hope it's worth it."


Photo courtesy of Unifor

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