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Worried workers shouldn’t be forced to return to factories, Canada’s Unifor says

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TORONTO — Autoworkers, many of whom are nervous about returning to work, won’t be urged to do so by union leaders until their health and safety concerns have been addressed by manufacturers, Unifor President Jerry Dias said Saturday.

“We’ve taken the position with the Detroit 3 that if our members aren’t comfortable going back to work, then there’s no way we’re going to allow any company to force people back to work,” Dias said. “We’re not giving any green light at all unless our local health and safety people and our committees are 100-percent convinced that everything is OK.”

The Canadian union chief’s comments follow those he made on Thursday, when he said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Canadian auto plants would be able to resume production on the early May timetable put forth by much of the industry. That stood in contrast to a statement by UAW President Rory Gamble, who said it would be “too risky” for workers to go back on the job at that time.

Dias said he remained “cautiously optimistic” that timetable could be achieved but warned that such targets might not be hit if his members remain nervous about returning to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s no question we’re cautiously optimistic, but the bottom line is people are afraid,” Dias said.

Windsor plant concerns

He pointed to Fiat Chrysler’s Windsor, Ontario, assembly plant as an example of a factory where workers are particularly worried because the city borders Detroit, among the U.S. cities hit hardest by the pandemic. The Windsor plant builds the Chrysler Pacifica, Chrysler Voyager and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans.

“Our members are watching very closely what’s happening in Detroit and Michigan,” Dias said. “It’s a different animal [in Canada], but the simple reality is our members in Canada, by and large, many of them don’t want to go to work at all because they’re nervous and there’s a lot of mistrust.”

Dias on Thursday said he understood why the UAW would oppose the early May production startup because the United States has been hit harder by the pandemic than Canada has. The U.S. has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths of any country in the world.

FCA has said it aims to progressively restart its Canadian and U.S. plants beginning May 4. Automotive News reported on April 16 that the company targeted that day to reopen its Brampton, Ontario, assembly plant, followed by a May 18 restart date for Windsor Assembly.

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors have not publicly committed to a timeline, though Automotive News reported that information given to employees and suppliers indicated they were considering a similar time frame. Michigan’s current stay-at-home order runs through May 15.

Supply chain issues

There also are questions about the readiness of the North American supply chain. For automakers to resume production, suppliers theoretically must begin manufacturing parts and components a few days ahead of their customers to ensure timely deliveries.

This uncertainty has created confusion throughout the supply chains as plans to resume production conflict with stay-at-home orders in Michigan and other states.

Earlier this week, French supplier Faurecia originally planned to resume parts production in Saline, Mich., for customer Tesla Inc., on Monday, April 27, even though Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s state-at-home orders remained in effect.  The company has since pushed back its restart date twice until at least May 16.

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