The lingering issue of Stellantis’ vaccine mandate for workers at its Canadian operations dominated the discussion Thursday at Unifor Local 444’s first in-person annual general meeting in two years.
Unvaccinated workers, who have been suspended without pay by the company since January, wanted more information on the union’s grievance filed over the mandate and are urging Local 444 to increase the pressure on the company to reverse its position.
“We want to know more about the positions being taken for the arbitration case,” said Robert Johnstone, who is an inspector and has been employed at the plant for 27 years. “We want more transparency. We haven’t seen anything in the grievance.
“We’re not crazy anti-vaxxers. We’re just anti this (mandate).”
Local 444 and Unifor Local 1285, which represents the Brampton Assembly Plant, have jointly filed a grievance with arbitration hearings scheduled for May 17 and 25.
Johnstone said there are about 130 unvaccinated employees in the unvaccinated group.
“The majority of us have over 25 years at the plant with good work records,” Johnstone said.
He added the numbers in the group have been slowly dwindling as some have opted to get vaccinated and return to work to avoid losing their homes.
Some of those in the skilled trades have found new jobs elsewhere.
“I’m not putting everything on our union,” Johnstone said.
“I would’ve loved to see some work stoppage to get this overturned, but people were overwhelming against that.”
Local 444 president Dave Cassidy has called the vaccine mandate the most divisive issue he’s seen in his time at the plant. He said he sympathizes with his members’ frustrations of him and has continued discussions with the company on ending the mandate.
“We feel it’s an unfair policy. We agree with much of what they say and we’ve filed a grievance,” Cassidy said. “People are frustrated and this was an opportunity for them to talk to us about that.
“They feel we can do more, but we’ve done more than they can imagine.
“I talk to the company every day about getting past this. I pulled aside Stellantis’s head of HR in Canada and the head for North America today at the plant to talk about this.”
The two Unifor locals have also brought in outside lawyers and expert scientific and medical experts to bolster their arbitration case.
Cassidy said he was also upfront in telling the membership at the meeting the arbitration rulings against mandated vaccinations haven’t been positive to date involving other companies.
“We’re trying everything we can within the arbitration system, but we will not shut down Windsor Assembly,” Cassidy said.
“That would also mean shutting down supply plants and we’re not going to do that.”
While Johnstone has been on paid compassionate leave to care for an ailing parent, that coverage will end in two weeks. He’ll then be in the same situation as his unvaccinated co-workers who don’t qualify for either supplemental benefits or employment insurance after being laid off for not getting vaccinated.
“It’s not technically fired, but it’s the same,” Johnstone said. “There’s no money coming in for people. It’s been very stressful.”
Johnstone said he’s chosen not to get the vaccination out of fear of the potential side effects of the new medication. He added genuine fear, questions of wanting efficacy and the unwillingness to let the company dictate personal health decisions are the main reasons workers have expressed for refusing the shots.
Steve Leather, who was hired in 1997, accepts that the mandate is a Stellantis directive, but wishes the union would be more proactive on behalf of its unvaccinated members.
“I just wish the union would show more fight,” said Leather, who works on the assembly line.
“Why aren’t we rallying the membership. Instead, there is such animosity in the plant about the rumors that we – the unclean who didn’t get vaccinated – might get our jobs back.
“I made my choice for personal health reasons and they made theirs because they were coerced to keep their jobs.”
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Unifor grieving Stellantis’s vaccine mandate policy
Leather and his wife, who also works at Stellantis, have been getting by on their savings. He’d hoped to retire in the next five years, but those plans have become iffy with an unsure future depending on the outcome of the arbitration hearings.
He said he consulted with his family and company doctors and researched the issue on his own before making his decision.
“The mandate isn’t serving the purpose it was intended to do,” Leather said.
“The company only requires you to get two shots to be fully vaccinated and we all know its efficacy wanes over time, so now it’s not really offering much protection when the deadline to get the shots was December 31.”