A battle between Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc. and the Canadian Auto Workers union is heating up as the CAW tries to gain its first foothold at Japan's largest car maker, writes Greg Keenan.

The CAW will ask the Ontario Labour Relations Board today or tomorrow to hold a vote at the assembly plant in Cambridge, Ontario, claiming that 40 percent of Toyota Canada's workers have signed union cards.

Toyota Canada will oppose that move, spokesman Greig Mordue said, arguing that the union has not signed up 40 percent of the work force so there is no reason to hold a vote.

"We're going to fight this thing vigourously," he said.

The union needs the signatures of 40 percent of the workers who would constitute a bargaining unit in order to call a vote and then 50 percent of those who vote to win a certification election.

A certification win for the CAW would be a huge victory for automotive unions in North America, which have been rejected at various U.S. and Canadian plants operated by the three largest Japan-based auto makers - Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp.

"It would really be a watershed development," said John Casesa, who follows the auto industry for Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. in New York.

The drive by the CAW to organise Toyota Canada has been going on for 18 months. The verbal battle over whose numbers are right is growing louder as the vote approaches.

"The union has to be reasonably intelligent enough to understand that there are well above 2,000 people here," said Mordue.

The number is closer to 3,000 people, he said, although he refused to reveal a specific figure.

Paul Forder, a CAW organiser, put the figure at closer to 2,000 people, although he also refused to be specific. The CAW is counting just production and maintenance staff, he said. Engineers and office and administrative staff would not be included in the bargaining unit.

The usual practice in the event a company challenges a union's claim of 40 percent is for the board to let a vote go ahead five days after it is requested, if the board is satisfied that the union has signed 40 percent of what the union defines as the bargaining unit.

Mordue insisted that the company treats its employees well.

"They're trying to paint Toyota as less than an exemplary employer."

But the car maker pays production workers about $Can27 an hour and has never laid off employees, he said.

Forder retorted that if Toyota Canada is as wonderful an employer as Mordue claimed, there would be no need for the union.

"What's the company afraid of? If we get 40 percent of a vote or 48 percent of a vote, that's a strong condemnation of their system, whether they like it or not," he said.

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