Unifor President Jerry Dias — who is urgently trying to secure the future of Canadian automotive plants — said today that contract negotiations with Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles got off to a much better start than they did with General Motors the day before.

Dias said Ford and FCA are open to at least discussing additional investment and new product programs at their plants in Ontario as part of contract negotiations with the Canadian union.

Unifor, which represents about 40,000 Canadians who work for the automakers or for suppliers, is worried that at least three plants in Canada will close in the coming years unless the union convinces the automakers to commit to investments as part of a new labor agreement.

Unifor’s most urgent concerns are with GM’s assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario, Ford’s engine plants in Windsor and FCA’s plant in Brampton, Ontario. Together, they employ 7,200 workers or about one-third of union members employed by the Detroit Three in Canada.

“There is a clear difference between today’s discussions and the discussions yesterday,” Dias said during a news conference in Toronto today. “(GM negotiators) are of the mindset they will make investment decisions only after the conclusion of successful negotiations. … Though we have similar challenges with Ford and FCA, they understand that investment decisions are going to be a part of 2016 negotiations.”

The Canadian union’s current contract with all three automakers expires at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 19. Dias said Unifor will pick one of the three automakers as its target on Sept. 6, giving that company the opportunity to shape the pattern that will be used for a deal with the other two.

Canada has watched in recent years as automakers have closed plants and scaled back production in Canada while expanding in the U.S. and Mexico.

“Since 2007, nine assembly plants have opened in Mexico and two in the U.S. while our Canadian footprint continues to drop,” Dias said. “The Canadian footprint drop is going to stop as a result of 2016 bargaining.”

Dias said Unifor stressed the importance of keeping all of the automakers’ plants open for years,  not just finding stop-gap solutions.

At Ford, Unifor pressed its case for investment at Windsor Engine, a plant that makes just one engine that will eventually be phased out, and the future of Oakville Assembly.

Ford invested $700 million to upgrade Oakville last year to make the redesigned Ford Edge and is running three shifts of workers. However, the Ford Flex — an aging crossover — is also made at Oakville.

Steve Majer, vice president of Ford Canada, suggested in a statement that the union must embrace “new thinking, new approaches and new solutions,” if it wants to secure new investments in Canada.

Art Schwartz, president of Labor and Economics Associates in Ann Arbor, said Unifor should consider agreeing to a profit-sharing formula rather than pushing for wage increases. Unifor has historically opposed profit sharing and even split from the UAW in the early 1980s largely because of disagreement between Canadian and American leaders over the issue.

But with Dias saying the future of the Canadian automotive industry is at stake in this round of negotiations and with UAW workers hauling in record high profit-sharing checks in recent years, the timing could be right for Unifor to reconsider its historic opposition, Schwartz said.

New workers hired by the Detroit Three in Canada start at C$20.40 per hour and reach the top wage of C$34 per hour after 10 years. Many Unifor autoworkers who haven’t received a raise in 10 years are expecting wage increase in this round of negotiations. Still, those wages are slightly higher than UAW wages in the U.S. and much higher than wages in Mexico.

“We approach the process with a shared goal — to pursue long-term viability for Canadian auto manufacturing,” Majer said in a statement. “The global landscape has significantly changed in four years, and through our discussions we’ll need to find innovative ways to be competitive and support our employees’ quality of life.”

With FCA, Unifor is concerned about the future of  the automaker’s Brampton Assembly Plant and Etobicoke Casting Plant. FCA makes the Chrysler 300, Dodge Challenger and Dodge Charger in Brampton and hasn’t fully updated the underpinnings of those cars for almost a decade. Also, Brampton’s paint shop is among the oldest in the automaker’s North American system.

Meanwhile, Etobicoke’s future is at risk because it provides castings for the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 — two cars that FCA will soon discontinue.

FCA, in a statement, touted its recent investments at Windsor Assembly to produce the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan and other investments since 2009.

“FCA has been able to invest more than $3 billion in its Canadian facilities and has hired nearly 2,200 hourly employees,” the automaker said. “As we head into these negotiations, we look forward to continuing that partnership while reaching a labor agreement that will sustain the company’s competitiveness over the long term.”

Dias said he was initially encouraged with Wednesday’s meeting with GM because the automaker sent its top Canadian leadership team not just top labor officials — to the bargaining table.

But GM refused to discuss the future of Oshawa.

“As we have underscored for the past two years, GM won’t make any future product decisions for Oshawa Assembly until after these negotiations,” the automaker said in a statement.

GM’s Oshawa plant — where 2,600 hourly workers are employed — has two assembly lines. The Flex Line builds the Chevrolet Impala, the Buick Regal, and the Cadillac XTS. But all three are scheduled to be discontinued or moved to other plants.

“GM will change their position,” Dias said. “They will change their position during this set of negotiations. The only question is when.”

Contact Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or bsnavely@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @BrentSnavely.