* Strike committees to be set up across companies
* CAW has never struck the three automakers at the same time
* CAW says automakers bent on cutting costs in contracts
By Allison Martell and Nicole Mordant
TORONTO, Sept 5 The union that represents workers at the Detroit automakers in Canada said on Wednesday it could strike at all three companies simultaneously for the first time in its history if it does not see more progress in contract talks.
The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) said strike committees will be formed by local unions at Ford of Canada, General Motors of Canada and Chrysler Canada this week, ahead of the union's strike deadline of 11:59 p.m. eastern on Sept. 17 (0359 GMT, Sept. 18).
"It is our hope and intention to reach an agreement with at least one of the three companies before the deadline," the union said in a leaflet distributed to members. "We must be prepared, though, to shut down operations at all three, should we be unable to reach an agreement."
The union, which represents around 20,000 workers at the Detroit Three, typically picks a lead company to focus on in contract talks, setting a pattern that the other two automakers would be expected to follow. In the past, strikes have occurred more frequently at the target company.
But the CAW said last week that it could break with tradition and continue talks with all three automakers simultaneously.
The CAW's threat of a triple strike was "highly unusual", said Art Schwartz," a labor consultant and former GM labor negotiator based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Striking against one target puts particular pressure on that company because its competitors keep operating, Schwartz said.
"The fact that they're forming a strike committee at all three, all it does is give them maximum flexibility," he said. "They could strike everybody, but it doesn't mean they're going to."
The last strike at Detroit Three operations in Canada occurred in 1996 when GM workers walked off the job for three weeks.
Ford of Canada remains "committed to working with the CAW" and is confident of finding solutions "to improve the competitiveness of the Canadian operations", spokeswoman Lauren More said in an email.
Chrysler Canada declined to comment on the strike threat and GM Canada could not be reached for comment immediately.
The CAW said in its leaflet that little progress had been made in talks with the car companies and that all its bargaining committees had bumped up against the same barrier.
"The corporations are refusing to add any costs whatsoever - instead, they insist on cutting costs from our existing agreements," the union said.
All three automakers have said repeatedly that Canada is now the most expensive place in the world to produce cars. The union argues that workers who helped keep the companies afloat during the financial crisis should share in the rewards of their return to profitability.
Gary Beck, chairman of the CAW's Ford master bargaining committee, said the companies are asking for big concessions, putting "far-fetched" offers on the table.
"We have been sitting down with all three companies, and no one has taken the initiative to lead," he said. "This will, hopefully, wake them up."