Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, this week unveiled a comprehensive auto policy outlining its vision for vehicle and parts manufacturing that will transform Canada into a global leader in battery-electric vehicle production. Photo: Unifor

After a contested election, Payne became the first woman to head Unifor — Canada’s largest private-sector union — which kicked off her term by releasing a new-forward looking auto policy report focused on electric vehicle manufacturing

Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, this week unveiled a comprehensive auto policy outlining its vision for vehicle and parts manufacturing that will transform Canada into a global leader in battery-electric vehicle production.

The report, Navigating the Road Ahead – Rebuilding Canada’s Powerhouse Auto Sector, was announced just a day after the union elected its new national president, Lana Payne, during its fourth Constitutional Convention in Toronto.

“Canada is at an important inflection point,” said Payne at a news conference unveiling the report. “There’s never been a more important time for governments to solidify an ambitious and comprehensive industrial strategy for [the auto] sector… what we are presenting today is perhaps our union’s most ambitious effort to map out such an approach.”

Payne, formerly Unifor’s national secretary-treasurer, will represent around 315,000 unionized workers across Canada, including over 40,000 members in the auto manufacturing and parts suppliers industries. 

The auto policy report presents 29 recommendations grouped under five core pillars that Unifor says will help accelerate the development of Canada’s auto industry. These pillars are: growing the domestic industry; managing the transition to net zero; enhancing the skills needed to succeed; creating high-quality, union jobs; and advancing equity and inclusion.

Growing end-to-end supply chain

As the demand for electric vehicles grows, Unifor is calling for the federal government to create a national comprehensive auto industrial strategy and program and a dedicated federal ministry to lead it.

“It’s not enough right now that we have five, six, 20 different departments who have different responsibilities around this file,” said Payne. “We really need to have a coordinated approach so that we’re making sure that we’re taking advantage of every single opportunity that we can have, and we’re building as many good jobs in Canada as possible from assembly all through the supply chain.”

The report also highlights Canada’s opportunity to develop a domestic value-chain strategy for all components of EV production.

So far, the country has made significant strides in attracting EV investments to diversify its auto production and steadily transition to an all-electric future while securing job opportunities for Canadian workers.

Auto manufacturing giants such as General Motors, Stellantis and Ford are all setting up EV assembly plants in Ontario. Last month, Belgium-based Umicore also made an announcement for a  $1.5-billion-cathode active material and precursor cathode active material plant near Kingston, Ont. Meanwhile, Quebec is home to a burgeoning battery material production supply chain with the likes of StromVolt, Britishvolt, BASF, General Motors and Posco investing in the province.

However, there are still gaps that remain in the supply chain, says Unifor. 

“We can’t limit our ambition to critical minerals or assembly programs. Canada must commit itself to building out a full Canadian main supply chain. That means investments in critical component parts,” said John D’Agnolo, president of Unifor Auto Council at the news conference.

Canada currently has no production scheduled for e-powertrains, key motors and axles, nor semiconductors, says D’Agnolo. Furthermore, the country produces almost no battery-grade materials from nickel, cobalt, manganese, graphite or lithium despite having large reserves of these critical minerals.

“This just simply isn’t good enough. We have to grow these and other sub-sectors to foster stronger, domestic, automotive ecosystems. Building up our domestic production capacity can help limit the risk of supply chain shocks like those that have devastated auto workers across the country these past years,” said D’Agnolo.

Investments in workers

The transition to electric vehicle manufacturing will also bring with it new skills demands on workers, says Unifor.

“Workers understand this opportunity but we also understand the challenges that come with the electric shift that we are seeing throughout the supply chain. We know that EVs have far fewer moving parts than gas-powered cars…[and] we know that workers that build parts for engine transmission fuel system and exhaust system will face pressure as this transition begins,” said Emile Nabbout, president of Unifor IPS Council in Windsor-Essex.

In order to support working training and skills development, Unifor is calling for the government to undertake a targeted and proactive auto parts supplier transition support program and develop a national skills inventory to help identify potential needs and gaps in the sector and focus training support for workers moving forward.

“We also urge the government to establish a special labour market adjustment program tailored to the auto sector,” said Nabbout.

The adjustment program will include government support for tailored income maintenance, labour market readiness, skills upgrading, relocation assistance, early retirement bridging and other support.

Spurring the transition to net zero

The federal government is committed to a nationwide sales mandate that will require ZEVs make up 20 per cent of all new light-duty vehicle sales by 2026, 60 per cent of sales by 2030, and 100 per cent of sales by 2035.

But mandates by themselves won’t spur the adoption of EVs, says Unifor.

The union is advocating for a “holistic” policy strategy to encourage EV adoption by combining government sales mandates with significant infrastructure improvements and industry development initiatives.

They are urging the government to support domestic industries and establish a “made-in- Canada guidance for government fleet vehicle purchasing,” where the government prioritizes procurement of Canadian-made vehicles.

Then there is the issue of EV chargers.

“Benchmarks set by European Union agencies recommend a ratio of one charging station for every 10 electric vehicles on the road. Canada will have to significantly increase its planned infrastructure investments to meet this ratio,” reads the report.

“Specifically, the government will need to benchmark 4 million chargers to accommodate an expected on-road fleet of approximately 39 million electric vehicles based on current sales targets for ZEVs.”

The union also recommends doubling the maximum iZEV rebate incentive from $5,000 to $10,000 and adopting a sliding scale subsidy, similar to what British Columbia recently announced, where rebates are given out based on income. Individuals with incomes above $200,000 won’t be eligible to apply for iZEV once zero-mission car sales cross the 50 per cent threshold, Unifor recommends.

“Linking infrastructure, procurement, and consumer incentives with industrial development objectives makes for good coherent policies,” said D’Agnolo.

What’s to come

With Payne now established as Unifor’s leader and disruptions like COVID-19, computer chips and auto parts shortages easing slightly, the union is hoping for a calmer stretch that allows leadership to start implementing the auto plan.

“I think it’s really important that the next step is actually adopting this industrial, comprehensive policy. It’s not enough to do as we’ve been going. We need something more fulsome, which is why we’re putting forward this document,” said Payne.

Moving forward, the union will be presenting the policy report to the federal, provincial and municipal governments and lobbying on these policy recommendations over the coming year.

“I will say that I’m very excited about this work. I’m excited about the potential we have, and I’m eager to work on behalf of our members,” said Payne.