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TORONTO (Reuters) - Workers at a Canadian Toyota assembly plant are set to vote on Thursday on whether to make their workplace the first wholly owned Asian auto plant in North America to be unionized, but a last-minute obstacle threatens to invalidate the ballot.
On the eve of the vote, union representatives at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc's (7203.T), Cambridge, Ontario, plant, said that tension was rising, and charged the company with trying to intimidate workers.
"They're trying to put the fear into the minds of the workers leading up to the vote on Thursday," said Ian Morland, an organizer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union.
"Last night there was a large police presence at the gate trying to prohibit us from leafleting the work force."
The union filed unfair labor practice charges against Toyota Canada earlier this week, saying the company had threatened that job security and plant expansion would be jeopardized if workers voted to unionize.
Toyota, which said it is not giving interviews on the subject, released a statement on Tuesday saying it encourages all its members to take part in the vote.
"Despite the union's tactics of posting unproved allegations in the media, we believe our team members understand that we have communicated fairly to them," the statement read.
Canadian law requires a union to have the signatures of at least 40 percent of the total work force to hold a vote on unionizing.
The union said it was "well over" the 40 percent threshold when it filed for a vote for 3,100 of the plant's employees with Ontario's Ministry of Labor last week. But on Friday, Toyota Canada filed a modified list of employees, putting the number of workers at 4,025.
If the modified list stands, the union may not have the 40 percent needed to validate the vote.
The union local said it would advise its board later on Wednesday whether it can meet the threshold.
"If we don't have the 40 percent, theoretically, the vote can be held and the ballot boxes will be sealed until we go through this list name by name and that will take several weeks," Morland said.
If the vote is successful it would mark the first time workers have voted in favor of a union at a wholly-owned Asian assembly plant in North America.
Toyota's Cambridge plant builds the Corolla, Matrix and Lexus RX 350 models for North America and assembles 4-cylinder, 1.8-liter engines for the Corolla and Matrix.
"I think it will be a bellwether really for what the situation is for the Canadian auto industry," said Aaron Bragman, automotive analyst at Global Insight in Detroit.
The Canadian auto industry has been struggling recently as a stronger Canadian dollar has increased costs and the downturn in the U.S. market has hurt demand. Also, a new contract between U.S.-based automakers and the United Auto Workers union has made Canadian plants less competitive.
Bragman said that if the Toyota plant were to unionize, it could affect future investments in Canada by Toyota or any of the Asian auto manufacturers.
"One of the big reasons that the Japanese have come and manufactured throughout the American South is that there isn't any union organization there really," he said.
The Canadian Auto Workers union is set to begin contract talks with the Canadian subsidiaries of the three big Detroit automakers this summer and there is strong pressure on the carmakers to cut costs to regain their competitive edge with their U.S. counterparts.
Editing by Peter Galloway