Unifor gets out ahead of expected job losses from the EV transition

By Alan S. Hale September 25, 2023

Unifor’s auto bargaining team celebrates a tentative agreement with Ford Motor Company Canada on September 19, 2023 (Unifor/Twitter)

Unifor members ratified a new three-year collective agreement with Ford Motor Company, staving off a potential strike with one of the “Big Three” automakers, which are currently dealing with job action in the United States.

Going into negotiations, Unifor president Lana Payne told Queen’s Park Today one of the union’s big priorities was protections for autoworkers affected by the transition to electric vehicles (EVs), which require fewer parts and less assembly to manufacture.

Ford CEO Jim Farley has predicted EVs will require 40 per cent less labour to produce.

Before the tentative agreement was announced, Payne said Ontario’s automotive industry is facing “a once-in-a-century kind of transition” that brings with it “opportunities and excitement” for growth.

“But there is also anxiety that comes with any kind of transition and change of this magnitude, and our job as a union is to make sure we are protecting workers’ every step of this process.”

Unifor said the new contract “provides protections during the EV transition,” including “special EV transition measures for members at the Oakville assembly plant,” which is scheduled to become the first major factory to transition entirely to EV production next year.

Meanwhile, Ford hailed the agreement as a “blueprint for the Canadian automotive industry.”

The Oakville transition will serve as a litmus test for how the EV transition will affect workers on the assembly line with Payne saying the union is not expecting any job losses when the plant, which currently employs 3,000 people, switches to making EVs.

According to the bargaining report outlining the tentative agreement to members, most of the protections negotiated into the new contract focus on improving income supplements for workers while the facility is retooled, a process expected to take roughly eight months.

Union drive planned for new battery plants

According to Payne, the union aimed to ensure assembly plant workers who may no longer be needed to work on the simpler powertrains of EVs would be moved to other areas of the supply chain, such as battery packing.

“The battery plant and assembly work will take place inside the Oakville facility and will create positions as well,” she noted.

Unifor also wants displaced autoworkers to be given jobs at new EV battery production facilities, like the ones Stellantis and Volkswagen are set to build in Ontario. Those plants are not unionized yet, but Unifor plans to launch a union drive once hiring begins.

In its own press release, Ford said it is “modernizing workforce design to support the EV future.”

Centre for Future Work director Jim Stanford agrees shifting displaced workers into battery assembly could help avoid layoffs — an employment strategy that has been borne out by the EV transition currently underway in countries such as South Korea and China.

“You are not seeing, at all, a major shedding of labour from the overall automotive supply chain [in those countries],” said Stanford.

“Those jobs in battery production are big, so there will be both a change in the type of work and — I would suggest — a modest change in the amount of work.”

Auto parts companies play musical chairs

The biggest impacts of the EV transition may not be felt in assembly plants, but at the companies that supply parts to automakers, as fewer parts will mean fewer contracts to go around.

“Thirty per cent of the jobs could be at risk on the auto parts side,” said Payne, who added Unifor wants to make sure workers from that side of the industry are also given new jobs elsewhere in the supply chain.

Auto Parts Manufacturers’ Association president Flavio Volpe acknowledged auto parts makers “face the biggest challenge” when it comes to adapting to the EV transition but believes Ontario companies have what it takes to compete for the remaining business, likening the situation to a game of musical chairs.

“If you lose volume in engines, can you win volume in motor? There are big Ontario-based suppliers showing that they can do that,” he said. “Suppliers of secondary components within engines are going to have to hustle … They don’t have a guaranteed ticket to the future, though — they have to earn it.”

One example of Ontario companies demonstrating their ability in the EV space is Project Arrow, a concept car made entirely out of Ontario-sourced EV components that is being shown off at auto and tech industry shows around the world. The project was supported by the provincial government.

“That was the best business card and business development platform the industry has ever seen,” Volpe said.

Worn-out tires prevent doomsday

Stanford noted car mechanics could also be hit hard by the EV transition.

“This is where there is going to be a very significant shift in labour because there’s so much less maintenance required in a battery powertrain than an internal combustion engine,” he said, suggesting “a very proactive transition plan” may be required to help the industry adjust.

“[It should include], first of all, notice of what is happening. Second, incentives for older workers to retire are always a very, very helpful transition tool. Then third, access to training for the new types of work you’re going to have people doing,” said Stanford.

Automotive Aftermarket Retailers of Ontario president Diane Freeman said training programs for technicians to learn how to service EVs have been available “for years now” and noted staying up to date on the latest technology is a regular part of working in the industry.

Repair shops will still have the mainstays of their businesses such as tire, wiper and filter changes, even after the EV transition, Freeman pointed out, with tires expected to wear out more quickly under heavier electric vehicles.

Ontario’s government could help offset impacts to the auto mechanic sector by providing more funding for training programs and purchasing the specialized equipment needed to work on EVs.

“It’s not doomsday for our industry,” she said.