By ROB GILLIESAssociated Press
TORONTO (AP) - The Canadian Auto Workers union will focus on reaching an agreement with Ford as negotiations continue with all of Detroit's Big Three automakers with a strike deadline looming Monday night, the head of the union said Sunday.
CAW President Ken Lewenza said Ford has shown a willingness to reach an agreement. He said talks with Chrysler and General Motors will continue but high level talks will be focused on Ford. A strike at all three automakers would affect about 20,000 workers and about 16 percent of North American auto production.
The CAW represents about 4,500 workers at Ford, 8,000 workers at GM and another 8,000 at Chrysler. Its contracts with all three automakers expire at 11:59 p.m. Monday.
The union has focused talks in the past on one of the automakers with the idea of setting a template deal for all three.
"We hope to get a deal an hour before the deadline where I can go and share it with General Motors and Chrysler," Lewenza said. "If they like it we won't have strike action."
If the CAW reaches a deal with Ford it could extend the strike deadline for GM and Chrysler.
"We will continue to work providing they give us a firm commitment that they can live with the conditions of which Ford and the CAW bargaining committee established," Lewenza said.
The CAW hasn't gone on strike since 1996 and there has never been a simultaneous strike by the union against all three automakers.
Ford said in a statement that it has a strong track record of working collaboratively with the CAW.
"We are confident that, working together, we can find innovative solutions to help build a successful future for our Canadian operations," said Stacey Allerton, vice president, human resources for Ford Motor Company of Canada.
At issue is the future of Canada's auto industry.
The auto companies say Canada is the most expensive place in the world to make cars and trucks, and they could move production south if the CAW doesn't cut costs. Wages are a key issue in the talks and the union is proposing that new employees earn less only when they are first hired and then take longer to reach the top end of the wage scale.
The automakers have been pushing for a permanent wage reduction for new employees, similar to a deal the companies reached in the U.S.
Canada's advantages in the past, a weaker Canadian dollar and government health care, have all but vanished. In addition, the United Auto Workers union in the U.S. has agreed to steeper concessions than the CAW, making U.S. labor costs cheaper.
The federal Canadian and Ontario province governments worked in tandem with the U.S. government on auto bailouts in 2009 to maintain Canada's share of North American auto production. Canada's share peaked at 3.2 million cars in 1999, about 17.4 percent of North American production. In 2011, Canada produced 2.1 million vehicles, or about 16 percent.
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