Expect talks between the Canadian Auto Workers union and DaimlerChrysler Canada Inc. to accelerate quickly as the two sides haggle over the future of a van plant in Windsor, Ont.

"When we sit down (Oct. 7), we won’t be talking about economics. Because as far as we’re concerned, it’s been established already," says Ken Lewenza, national chairman of the CAW’s DaimlerChrysler bargaining team.

He refers to the pattern the union established at General Motors of Canada Ltd. and continued at Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. Those rounds of talks resulted in 3-year agreements – reached without strike action – that gives workers an 8% base wage hike.

And at Ford, the two sides resolved their differences over the auto maker’s planned closure in 2003 of its F-150 assembly operations in Oakville, Ont. Instead of putting 1,500 people out of work, 900 jobs will be saved by adding a third shift to an adjacent Windstar assembly plant where Ford will invest C$600 million ($377 million). This will accommodate production of a Mercury version of the minivan.

But the dilemma facing DaimlerChrysler and the CAW, though seemingly similar, is decidedly more complex.

"The significant difference is, we already have a third shift," Lewenza says, referring to Windsor Assembly, DaimlerChrysler’s minivan plant.

Site of Caravan, Voyager and Town and Country production and lone source of the Pacifica, the auto maker’s all-new tall wagon, the facility is a 5-minute drive from the contentious Pillette Road Truck Plant where DaimlerChrysler builds the doomed fullsize Dodge Ram Van/Wagon B-van.

"We can’t possibly absorb the 1,100 people," Lewenza says, referring to the number of workers affected by the proposed closure.

Even if the Pacifica is a runaway success, he adds, there isn’t enough wiggle room at Windsor Assembly to accommodate much more than one-third of Pillette’s hourly payroll.

As part of DaimlerChrysler Corp.’s restructuring in late 2000, line speed at Windsor Assembly was reduced. A return to previous production levels would create just 400 jobs, Lewenza notes.

"And that just doesn’t do it. The fact of the matter is … we need Pillette."

Therein lies the biggest obstacle facing the two sides as they rush to reach a tentative deal before the expected strike deadline of 11:59 p.m., Oct. 15: The CAW is bent on keeping the company’s options open regarding Pillette’s future.

"Is it possible the company can extend the maxivan? They’ve indicated the answer to that question is no," Lewenza says. "But would that be a reasonable solution until we find another product that we can put in Plant 6? Certainly."

However, DaimlerChrysler appears to be sticking to its guns. Calling the closure a "major issue," a spokeswoman suggests the auto maker is looking past the prospect of keeping Pillette open.

"From our perspective, the focus is on how to best deal with the people situation," the spokeswoman says, referring to a desire to "mitigate" the effects of job losses.

Lewenza believes the union is in the company’s good graces because it negotiated a plant closure agreement in mid-contract. As part of its restructuring, DaimlerChrysler is closing a soft trim plant in Ajax, Ont., near Toronto.

Company and union got together and ironed out a deal that features retirement incentives for eligible workers and a preferred hiring plan for the remaining workforce. When DaimlerChrysler identifies who will build suspension frames for Pacifica and the replacements for its LH products, the supplier will give preferential hiring treatment to displaced Ajax workers.

The fullsize B-van, which once helped anchor DaimlerChrysler’s commercial vehicle program, is being replaced by the Sprinter, a European-built, Mercedes-designed van that currently wears a Freightliner badge in North America and soon will feature the Dodge emblem.

As part of its roller-coaster ride, Pillette had been on a short list of prospective North American sites for Sprinter assembly, but DaimlerChrysler has squelched that idea.

Previously, the auto maker had committed an investment of $1 billion at the plant. This would have accommodated production of the Dodge Ram fullsize pickup and an SUV off the Ram platform for ’04.

But this, too, was scrapped – another casualty of restructuring.

Also unique to the DaimlerChrysler-CAW agenda: income security.

"Our supplementary unemployment plan, for example, has been exhausted over the last three years, which wasn’t the case at either Ford or General Motors," Lewenza says, recalling the elimination of a shift at the auto maker’s LH assembly operations in Brampton, Ont. "So we need to pump up that supplementary unemployment fund."

For its part, DaimlerChrysler remains positive about the bargaining process. "It’s something that we view as a problem-solving session with a deadline," a spokeswoman says, adding the auto maker is seeking a "win-win situation" that satisfies both sides.

And there is another aggravation, though relatively minor, that might affect negotiations, a company official tells Ward's. The expected strike deadline falls one day before Canadian Thanksgiving, a national holiday.

Regardless, he says, expect talks to continue to the deadline if there is not a tentative settlement – or the hint of one.

"We’ve done it before," he adds.