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Ford, CAW at impasse over cuts

TORONTO - Ford Canada intends to slash its Canadian manufacturing presence from 13 per cent to eight per cent of total North American production despite requests from its union to the contrary, the Canadian Auto Workers says.

TORONTO - Ford Canada intends to slash its Canadian manufacturing presence from 13 per cent to eight per cent of total North American production despite requests from its union to the contrary, the Canadian Auto Workers says.

Ford and the union have been negotiating a new labour contract since Sept. 8, but the two sides have reached an impasse over how much production the company intends to keep in Canada.

Currently, Ford manufactures approximately 13 per cent of its overall North American production in Canada. The union is asking the company to maintain that percentage if it wants concessions from workers.

However, CAW economist Jim Stanford said Ford's current plans will see that number drop to eight per cent by 2013.

Numbers from independent industry adviser AutomotiveCompass show a similar decline, with Canadian production shrinking to 8.6 per cent of the North American total in 2013, and 8.2 per cent in 2014.

Ford Canada spokeswoman Lauren More said Ford doesn't discuss future production or product plans for competitive reasons.

Stanford said Ford wants the same concessions the union gave General Motors and Chrysler in negotiations earlier this year, but isn't willing to make the same promises in return.

Chrysler committed to maintaining 20 per cent of its assembly operations in Canada, while GM promised to keep 18 per cent of its operations here.

"So Ford is starting from a smaller position, but the most troubling aspect is they're looking at significant shrinkage in what is already the smallest footprint of any of the automakers in Canada," Stanford said.

"Ford has to live up to the same standard in terms of maintaining its presence if they expect us to live up to the same contract."

He said the company's plans for its southern Ontario operations include closing a plant in St. Thomas by 2011, permanently shrinking production in Oakville from three shifts to two, and cutting back the workforce at an engine plant in Windsor.

Ford asked the CAW to renegotiate its current labour contract, which doesn't expire until 2011, after the union gave substantial concessions to GM and Chrysler as a condition for the broader bailout by the federal and Ontario governments earlier this year.

Stanford said it's "ludicrous" to expect workers to ratify a new contract that asks them to give concessions without providing job guarantees.

"If you have a situation in St. Thomas where they're allowed to vote on this contract, are you really going to go to a bunch of workers whose plant is doomed and say, 'By the way, give us an extra few dollars an hour between now and the time your plant dies?"' he asked.

"That is an absolute non-starter, and Ford knows it."

The manufacturing presence issue has become a major "stumbling block" in contract negotiations between the company and its workers, particularly the future of the St. Thomas plant, CAW president Ken Lewenza said.

Lewenza said the union's primary goal is to keep the St. Thomas plant producing cars but, if that's impossible, it's willing to consider other options.

"It's all about jobs - it's not in isolation about location, it's about jobs," Lewenza said.

The union leader suggested the company could turn the St. Thomas plant into a parts assembly operation.

"We don't manufacture transmissions here - is it possible to manufacture transmissions here? Is it possible to do some modular components in the Ford St. Thomas plant? What else can we do to utilize the space and give workers an opportunity to work?" Lewenza said.

Currently, the 1,600-employee plant builds the Ford Crown Victoria, the Lincoln Town Car and the Mercury Grand Marquis - all full-sized cars, demand for which is limited to niche markets. The Crown Victoria is only included in sales of fleets, such as those run by police departments and taxi companies.

Auto industry analyst Bill Pochiluk said it's likely CAW members at St. Thomas would vote down any contract that will see Ford eliminate their jobs, and it will be nearly impossible for the union and the company to reach an agreement unless one or the other is willing to compromise.

"For Lewenza, this is a tougher problem than both GM and Chrysler," he said.

Ford employs about 7,000 hourly workers in Canada and more than 70,000 in North America. Its North American workforce has shrunk by more than 40 per cent since late 2006, when it employed more than 112,000 workers.