Canada Says Chrysler Must Slash Labor Costs

Chrysler must slash labor costs to a level competitive with non-unionized plants, and must go beyond concessions met in a recent GM Canada deal, says federal Industry Minister.

TORONTO -- Chrysler Canada must slash its labor costs to a level competitive with non-unionized plants in Canada, and the pattern established in an earlier deal reached between General Motors Canada and its union isn't good enough, says federal Industry Minister Tony Clement.

Chrysler has said it needs to reduce its hourly labor costs by $19 an hour to be competitive with Toyota and Honda plants in Canada, but the Canadian Auto Workers union has so far insisted that it will stick to the pattern set in its March labor agreement with GM -- which reduces that company's costs by about $7 an hour.

But Clement said the CAW will have to give up more to protect Canadian jobs.

"The CAW has to recognize that in order for Chrysler to survive in this country, that Chrysler has to be competitive with the rest of the Canadian market," Clement said at a news conference in Toronto on Thursday.

"If everyone is saying -- and they are saying -- that Chrysler, in order to be competitive, has to go beyond the pattern in terms of cost reductions and cost competitiveness, I believe the CAW has to have regard for that," he added.

Chrysler has been given until April 30 to negotiate a partnership with Italian automaker Fiat and to reach deals with its workers, bondholders and other stakeholders in order to receive long-term bailout loans from governments in Canada and the U.S.

The company spent several days in intensive labor negotiations with the CAW at the end of March, but those broke off after governments rejected its original restructuring plans.

This week, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said he will walk away from the proposed partnership -- widely considered to be Chrysler's last chance to avoid bankruptcy and possibly liquidation -- if Chrysler can't reduce its labor costs to a level competitive with German and Japanese assembly plants in both Canada and the United States.

The CAW and Chrysler will head back to the bargaining table Monday, and two people briefed on the United Auto Workers' negotiations told The Associated Press on Thursday the U.S. union has placed talks with General Motors on the back burner as it tries to forge a concession agreement with Chrysler.

Clement said Thursday that if Chrysler is unable to reach a deal with the CAW -- and therefore cement its alliance with Fiat -- the Canadian government will not provide the company with the emergency loans it has been asking for.

"With April 30 looming very closely on the horizon, the CAW has to do its part," Clement said.

"I know this is difficult. I know this affects real workers and towns and cities across Ontario. This is not an easy thing, but the alternative is, there is no deal in place and if there's no deal in place there will not be long-term funding arrangements with the government of Canada."

The federal and Ontario governments have already lent $250 million to Chrysler Canada at the end of March so it could meet payroll and other immediate obligations. Clement said the government would also have the right to call that loan if a deal isn't reached.

"If you're asking whether I'm willing to funnel Canadian government money and taxpayer money when we do not have an acceptable plan on a go-forward basis, I cannot do that. I don't think that would be responsible," Clement said.

Clement has also said the earlier agreement reached between the CAW and GM doesn't meet the conditions of long-term government loans and has asked the two parties to cut labour costs further.

However, GM CEO Fritz Henderson said the deal does make the company cost competitive and the CAW has refused to re-enter negotiations.

Chrysler said it is working hard to meet the governments' conditions by the April 30 deadline.

"All parties have complete understanding that Chrysler must achieve the necessary concessions and restructuring targets that have been established," the company said in an emailed statement.

"As it moves through this process, the company believes it is important to keep all options open but Chrysler's goal is to reach a conclusion by April 30 that the government deems viable, given the guidelines that have been set."

Clement was in Toronto to unveil a $145-million program called Automotive Partnership Canada, which he said will jump-start the development of higher tech, more environmentally friendly cars.

The program, which was initially announced in the Conservative government's 2008 budget, is also designed to help the struggling auto sector conserve jobs and rebuild.

Clement said the investment will be used to stimulate research and development in alternative fuels, next-generation manufacturing, advanced power trains and lighter or more sustainable materials.

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