CAN - Nemak's Windsor plant to close in 2020 after arbitrator's decision

Unifor Local 200’s bid to prevent Nemak’s Windsor Aluminum Plant from closing next year has failed with an arbitrator ruling Friday the company didn’t violate its collective agreement.

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The union had argued that Nemak had to keep the plant open until 2022 in exchange for Local 200 members having made wage concessions in their 2016 contract agreement with the Mexican-based firm. However, Ontario Labour Relations Board arbitrator Norm Jesin ruled in favour of Nemak’s position that the company would not be in violation of its contract with Unifor by closing the Windsor plant before 2022.

“Never in a million years did I expect that decision after we showed the evidence,” said Local 200 president John D’Agnolo. “I thought he might make a decision there was no program for the plant and the plant wasn’t sustainable, but they’d have to pay the workers (extra). That’s not even the case.”

The two sides had agreed to talks and binding arbitration about the plant’s future after Local 200 employees blockaded the plant for 13 days in September. The local manufacturing facility, which had 270 employees on the job as recently as a year ago, currently has 100 hourly wage workers.

D’Agnolo said the only option left to challenge the decision is through the court system. “I’ll meet with the national union Monday to see if we can challenge it,” D’Agnolo said. “I don’t know if there is anything there yet.”

In a written statement, Nemak spokesperson Lucy Wildman reiterated the company’s position that it hadn’t violated the collective agreement or acted in bad faith.

“(Arbitrator Norm) Jesin noted, he did not find any bad faith from either party,” Wildman said. “In fact, both parties made a good faith effort to create conditions that would allow the plant to operate even beyond 2022. Unfortunately, through no fault of any of the parties, the contract did not deliver the amount of work expected.”

The plant produces aluminum engine blocks for the Cadillac CTS in the Chinese market, the Chevrolet Colorado diesel pickup and the new Chevrolet Corvette.

Nemak officials have said the decision to close the plant was because it’s too small and inefficient and would be scheduled to operate at only about 10-per-cent capacity in 2020 after the Cadillac contract is completed. The company has received $4.5 million in federal and provincial grants in the past four years aimed at keeping the plant in Windsor.

“At this time, Nemak will continue operations as usual and work with Unifor leadership to support employees,” Wildman said. “A plant closure date will be announced soon.”

D’Agnolo fears Nemak will close the plant as early as March once the equipment is removed and the company’s new production facility in Mexico is ready. This arbitration decision has repercussions beyond just the labour community, he said. It is also a warning to governments that they need to protect their investments better when giving grants to corporations.

“You can call it corporate welfare, but with free trade every government has to offer these incentives,” D’Agnolo said. “We need a discussion on making these investments more secure. The message this sends is, regardless of contract language, they can move programs. Regardless of what you negotiate in the future, it means nothing.”