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Canadian auto union faces Catch-22 in General Motors fight

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TORONTO (Reuters) – Jerry Dias, the leader of Canada’s auto union, is unsparing in his rhetorical attacks on General Motors Co’s decision to close its Oshawa, Ontario, assembly plant and lay off thousands of union workers by year-end.

Unifor national president Jerry Dias addresses General Motors assembly workers and supporters protesting GM’s announcement to close its Oshawa assembly plant during a rally across the Detroit River from GM’s headquarters, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada January 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

But when it comes to action, Unifor’s president has been far more circumspect.

Dias promised “drastic measures” to compel GM to extend production of sedans and pickups, including the Silverado, to Sept. 21, 2020, when the current labor contract expires.

For more than a century, GM’s complex in Oshawa, a city east of Toronto, has been an economic engine for Ontario and Canada, anchored by thousands of highly paid manufacturing jobs.

After GM’s November announcement of a broad restructuring, including Oshawa, the union backed brief production disruptions, a call to boycott GM’s Mexican-made vehicles and a “solidarity” concert for workers by British musician Sting.

But Dias has not yet deployed the biggest weapon in his arsenal – a general strike to fully halt production of Silverado and Sierra pickups, vital to the Detroit automaker’s profitability.

Dias concedes there is mixed support for a walkout among union workers. Some Oshawa workers fear that shutting down GM Canada would hurt them much more than the company.

Unifor represents 2,600 assembly-line workers at GM Oshawa and 1,800 workers at plants supplying the Oshawa operations, whose contracts typically have lower pay, benefits and security. Some 1,500 work at feeder plants that are entirely reliant on Oshawa.

That is a sharp drop from the mid-1990s, when Unifor’s predecessor union counted 14,750 hourly members in Oshawa.

“We’re working in the GM plant, but we’re not GM,” said Sheri Steel, a forklift driver at CEVA Logistics. “Whenever GM shuts down, we do too. We get sent home and we lose pay.”

Strikes can be a “dangerous tactic” when plants face closure, and could drive GM to an earlier exit, she said.

Workers are pressing for talks on closure terms, which can improve on guaranteed worker provisions in a contract, said CEVA local Chairperson Keith Poulin. Unifor has declined those requests, saying it intends to keep the plant open, he said.

“We live paycheck to paycheck,” said Poulin’s wife, Jean Poulin. More than seven years ago, the couple were hired by companies supplying the GM plant for C$14 an hour.

Over time, their wages rose to C$20.50, but the 51-year-olds say that with limited severance, no pension and no savings, they cannot afford to retire.

“With a mortgage and bills, we are scared,” said Jean, who delivers parts for Syncreon Automotive.

‘THEY DON’T SCARE ME’

Some union members are nervous about their future, Dias told Reuters in an interview, but he is not. “They’ve got a lot of power,” he said of GM. “But they don’t scare me at all.”

Unifor has laid the groundwork for tougher action. It charged GM with breaking terms of the 2016 collective agreement, committing it to keep Oshawa open until the deal ends in 2020. It filed a grievance that is proceeding to arbitration.

GM Canada says the agreement notes that market conditions may arise beyond the company’s control. “The union has also been aware since 2016 that Oshawa truck production was temporary and ending in 2019,” said spokesman David Paterson.

So far, GM Chief Executive Mary Barra has refused to retreat from her restructuring plans despite criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump, Canadian politicians and unions in both countries. She has also declined to meet with Dias.

“We have a lot more cards to play,” Dias said. “But I’m not going to find a solution playing solitaire.”

Dias has looked for support from his U.S. counterparts in the United Auto Workers union. The two unions, which broke apart more than three decades ago, discussed cooperating on their campaigns to save plants, but provided no details.

In the past 23 years, there have only been two autoworker strikes in Canada, said Unifor’s director of research.

“We used to have strikes at every round of bargaining among auto assemblers right from the beginning in 1937,” said Bill Murnighan. “But Canada now has a very low number of strikes compared to past eras and compared to other countries.”

A GM THAT CAN SAY NO

GM’s decision to end production at Oshawa and four U.S. plants is emblematic of a global shift, as automakers restructure and invest in next-generation vehicles, including electric and self-driving cars. With North American sales projected to flatten or decline, automakers are also wary of maintaining unnecessary capacity in the region.

Politicians on both sides of the border have reminded GM that the U.S. and Canadian governments rescued it with public money a decade ago.

After contributing more than C$10.5 billion to the 2009 GM bailout, the Canadian and Ontario governments sold their final equity stakes in 2015. A set of financing commitments, including domestic production, expired one year later, GM’s Paterson said.

Trump has threatened to cut all GM subsidies, a tough stance that Unifor has asked Canadian officials to adopt. But politicians from Ottawa and Toronto have taken a more moderate approach, saying there is nothing more they can do without GM’s cooperation. Dias calls their response inadequate.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth. … We have been having conversations repeatedly,” said a federal government official. “I don’t think the solution is just throwing money at the company.”

The provincial government agrees.

“We’ve asked many, many times – and offered all kinds of different things – What can we do, as the government of Ontario, for you to change your mind?” said Economic Development Minister Todd Smith. “And the answer has always been: ‘Nothing.’”

($1 = 1.3176 Canadian dollars)

Reporting by Susan Taylor in Toronto; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Joseph White and Peter Cooney

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Ottawa education workers still teaching special-ed students at schools want safety checks

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Some Ottawa educators say they are concerned about the safety of classrooms that remain open in schools for special-education students.

Ontario elementary and secondary students have been sent home to study virtually because of the dangers posed by rising rates of COVID-19. However, special-education classes are still operating at many bricks-and-mortar schools.

The special-education classes include students with physical and developmental disabilities, autism and behaviour problems. Some don’t wear masks and require close physical care.

Two unions representing teachers and educational assistants at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board have sent letters to Ottawa Public Health expressing their concerns.

It’s urgent that public health officials inspect classrooms to assess the safety of the special-ed classes, said a letter from the Ottawa branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which also represents the educational assistants who work with special-needs children.

“In the absence of reasons based on medical evidence to keep specialized systems classes open, we are unsure as to the safety of staff and students in these programs,” said the letter signed by president Stephanie Kirkey and other union executives.

The letter said staff agreed that students in specialized classes had difficulty with remote education and benefited most from in-person instruction.

“Our members care deeply about the students they work with and are not only concerned about their own health and safety, but also about that of their students, as they are often unable to abide by COVID safety protocols that include masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene, thus making it more likely that they could transmit the virus to one another,” the letter said.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has 1,286 elementary and secondary students in special-education classes attending in person at 87 schools, said spokesperson Darcy Knoll.

While final numbers were not available, Knoll said the board believed a large number of the special-education students were back in class on Friday at schools.

In-person classes for other elementary and secondary students are scheduled to resume Jan. 25.

The school boards provide PPE for educators in special-education classes as required, including surgical masks, face shields, gloves and gowns.

Several educators interviewed said they don’t understand why it has been deemed unsafe for students in mainstream classes to attend class, but not special-ed students.

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Ottawa sets record of 210 new COVID-19 cases following lag in data reporting

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Ottawa has now broken its daily record for new COVID-19 cases twice in 2021, with 210 new cases added on Friday amid a lag in data reports from earlier in the week.

The nation’s capital has now seen 10,960 cases of the novel coronavirus.

Ottawa Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard reports 977 active cases of the virus in Ottawa, a jump of more than 100 over Thursday’s figures.

One additional person has died in relation to COVID-19 in Ottawa, raising the city’s death toll in the pandemic to 395.

The record-setting case count comes a day after Ottawa reported a relatively low increase of 68 cases. Ontario’s COVID-19 system had meanwhile reported 164 new cases on Thursday.

OPH said Thursday that due to a large number of case reports coming in late Wednesday, the local system did not account for a large portion of cases. The health unit said it expects the discrepancy to be filled in the subsequent days.

Taken together, Thursday and Friday’s reports add 278 cases to Ottawa’s total, a daily average of 139 cases.

The new single-day record surpasses a benchmark set this past Sunday, when the city recorded 184 new cases.

Ontario also reported a new record of 4,249 cases on Friday, with roughly 450 of those cases added due to a lag in reporting in Toronto.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also continues to climb in Ottawa. OPH’s dashboard shows there are currently 24 people in hospital with COVID-19, seven of whom are in the intensive care unit.

Three new coronavirus outbreaks were added to OPH’s dashboard on Friday. One outbreak affects a local shelter where one resident has tested positive for the virus, while the other two are traced to workplaces and private settings in the community.

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Ottawa family dealing with mould issue in apartment grateful for support

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OTTAWA — An Ottawa family, who has been dealing with mould in their south Ottawa apartment, is grateful for the support they have received from the community.

“I would like to say big very mighty, big thank you to everyone,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

Adeniyi lives with her three sons in a South Keys apartment. Her son Desmond turned to social media on Sunday to seek help for the family, saying they’ve been dealing with mould in their unit and it has taken too long to fix.

“I see my mom go through a struggle everyday; with three kids, it’s not easy,” says 16-year-old Desmond Adeniyi.

He setup a GoFundMe page to help the family raise money to move out. After gaining online attention and the story, which originally aired CTV News Ottawa on Tuesday, they have been able to raise over $30,000.

“Yes! I was surprised, a big surprise!” says Nofisat Adeniyi, “We are free from the mess that we’ve been going through.”

The family was so touched, they decided to pay it forward and donated $5,000 to another family in need, “A lady my son told me about,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

The recipient wants to remain anonymous, but when she found out from Adeniyi, “She was crying, she has three kids; I remember when I was, I can feel what she’s feeling – because I was once in those shoes.”

CTV News Ottawa did reach out to the property management company for an update on the mould. In a statement on Wednesday, a spokesperson for COGIR Realty wrote:

“We respect the privacy of our residents and are unable to disclose any specific information regarding any of our residents. We can, however, let you know that we are working with the residents and are making every effort to resolve this matter as soon as possible,” said Cogir Real Estate

The giving did not stop at just cash donations. “When I saw the segment, the thing that struck me the most was how easily the situation can be resolved,” says mould removal expert Charlie Leduc with Mold Busters in Ottawa.

Leduc is not involved in the case, but appeared in the original story, and after seeing the mould on TV wanted to help.

“This isn’t something that we typically do, but given the circumstance and given the fact that this has gone on way too long, our company is willing to go in and do this work for free,” said Leduc.

The Adeniyi family may now have some options, and are grateful to the community for the support.

“Yes, It’s great news — you can see me smiling,” says Nofisat.

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