TORONTO — General Motors said Thursday it was backed into a corner when it told Unifor it may shift more production of one of its best-selling vehicles to Mexico, a move the union's president said is tantamount to an attack on Canada.
The company's warning to the union comes as a strike at its southwestern Ontario operation stretches into a fourth week. Both sides refuse to budge on the demand of job security at the CAMI plant in Ingersoll, Ont., which assembles GM's Chevrolet Equinox sport utility vehicle.
A GM spokesman — who did not want to be named because the company does not like to comment during negotiations — said in an interview that the company sees no alternatives but to explore production alternatives and said as much to Unifor president Jerry Dias on Wednesday.
The company's position is that it can't agree to the union's demand to guarantee investments and job security because they're part of long-term trade issues.
"We've been very clear from day one that those are long-term trade and market things that we just aren't going to be able to sign up for," said the spokesman.
Dias said in a phone interview Thursday from Washington, D.C., where NAFTA trade talks are being held, that GM's comments were nothing less than a declaration of war on Canada.
"This is GM saying to us — and saying to Canada — we're going to ramp up production in Mexico and we're going to flood the North American market from cars built in Mexico."
Dias said GM is taking advantage of the low pay scales for Mexican workers at the expense of higher-paid workers in the United States and Canada, as permitted by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
He said Unifor won't back down about designating CAMI as the lead plant for the Equinox, and suggested the union could broaden its efforts to defend Unifor jobs throughout Ontario's auto sector.
The CAMI plant is a prime example of a trend that has been happening for years, with GM adding plants in Mexico while closing Canadian and U.S. plants, Dias said.
"This is the ugly side of NAFTA, that people don't want to talk about," Dias said. "Mexican workers are being exploited and, as a result of that, we're losing hundreds and hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in Canada and the United States. It has to stop."
Tony Faria, a professor at the University of Windsor's Odette School of Business, said Unifor is right that Canada's automotive sector has lost out because of the trade deal, getting none of the last 10 assembly plants built in North America, while nine are going to Mexico.
But he said Dias could be making the situation worse by being so firm on demands for long-term commitments from the automaker.
"If Jerry is concerned about losing automotive jobs to Mexico, I think he's just adding to that situation by making it difficult for General Motors to work with Unifor in Canada."
The escalation of the assembly plant strike comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau begins an official visit to Mexico, while NAFTA negotiations continue in Washington.
Earlier this week, Trudeau met with politicians and business leaders in Washington as part of his government's NAFTA negotiation strategy.
—With files from Ian Bickis
David Paddon, The Canadian Press