By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
In the wake of devastating news regarding the closure of General Motors Oshawa assembly plant, the union representing workers has been vocal in its intent to fight.
Meetings were held with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer just days after the shocking news.
Meanwhile, Unifor Local 222 president Colin James says he was dismayed by comments made by Premier Doug Ford that union leaders and politicians were presenting “false hope” that the plant could potentially stay open.
James says “it is insulting” that Ford would “not even try” to help save the plant.
Despite this, the union rep says they have been speaking with provincial politicians and they are hoping to meet with Ford eventually.
It was clear that time had not softened the blow for James and his colleagues.
“It makes absolutely no sense that they would close their number one facility,” he says.
“It caught us off guard. Nobody quite frankly understands.”
James says what adds insult to injury for workers is there was no indication this was coming.
He said the plant had received acclaim and awards for its productivity and efficiency, and the company was running six-day shifts right up to the closure announcement.
He also points out that when truck production returned to the Oshawa plant, it was the “fastest launch in history,” and General Motors invested $500 million into the plant to bring truck production back.
When it was first revealed truck production was returning to Oshawa, Jennifer Wright, manager of corporate and internal communications for GM Canada stated, “This investment is for current model pickup production that helps us meet customer demand as we transition our production and introduce our exciting new models into the market starting later in 2018.”
David Paterson, vice-president of corporate and environmental affairs, told The Oshawa Express a project such as this usually requires between $500 million to $1 billion of investment.
“It really underscores and reminds people when you are starting a new automotive program in a factory, it does require a very significant investment,” Paterson said.
With that said, Paterson explains Oshawa’s truck production was always intended to be a two-year “shuttle” program to ensure there were enough pickup trucks to meet customer demand while upgrades were made at the Fort Wayne, Mich. Plant.
While there have been questions surrounding why the Oshawa plant is closing, Paterson says the decision to discontinue the products currently being made in Oshawa is because of a shift in the car market.
“Due to shifting in the car market, there will be no more [Chevrolet] Impalas and no more Cadillac XTS,” he explains. “What really drove the announcement [to unallocated production to Oshawa] was there would be no replacement [of these products].”
When asked if the companies’ ability to be competitive, due to often-cited factors such as the federal government’s proposed carbon tax or electricity costs in Ontario, were part of the decision, Paterson said this was not the case.
“I can assure you that they weren’t. What drove this decision is something more fundamental – the products there were not being replaced as we go forward.”
The reactions of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford drew criticism as accepting General Motors’ decision too easily.
Ford, who has laid the blame at the feet of the proposed carbon tax, has accused union leaders and politicians in creating “false hope” for Oshawa workers.
Unifor national president Jerry Dias told workers and supporters during a meeting the day after the closure announcement that “they are not closing our damn plant without a hell of a fight.”
“We’re not accepting their decision. One iota,” Dias said.
Dias and James both indicated a “very aggressive” campaign against General Motors’ decision will begin soon.
According to James, a collective agreement signed in 2016 stated the facility would not close until the end of 2020.
“So we will do anything by any means to make sure they live up to their word,” Dias said. “If they can violate the agreement, then we can do whatever the hell we can to get them to live up to it.”
When asked if the union would consider legal action, James said, “we’re going to consider whatever it takes.”
Calling Oshawa workers “a proud group,” James says he is not willing to accept there isn’t something that can be done.
“We’d like to see [product] allocated to the workers who have earned it,” he said.
Oshawa MP Colin Carrie says while the news is devastating for Oshawa, he does “have a little ray of hope.”
Carrie has introduced a motion to the International Trade Committee requesting the body “immediately undertakes a study concerning the Automotive Industry in Canada and details all options of the Federal Government’s plan to defend the Canadian Automotive Industry and the ability to defend Canada’s competitiveness globally.”
Oshawa’s federal representative says he hopes to have the motion debated next week.
He said he’s heard a “lot of rhetoric” from the Liberals and supporting his motion would back up the talk.
“If they are going to say they have all options examined and if they say they are putting together the plan if they vote that down, I’m going to be quite upset. There are real people who are going to be affected by it,” he says. “Nothing is going to happen if we don’t have leadership from this federal government.”
Carrie says while General Motors’ production levels in Oshawa have obviously declined from years ago, he believes there is some way it can be kept open, calling it the company’s “award-winning and premier plant” in Canada.
“These guys did everything they asked. The quality is up there, why wouldn’t this plant be worthy of this investment,” he said.
In response to Ford’s comments, Carrie said he doesn’t think “there is such a thing as false hope.”
However, he conceded that “[Ford] knows more than I do, as does Mr. Trudeau.”
Carrie said the Oshawa plant has faced threats before and came through.
“The consolidated line originally was going to close in 2008, and they put an extension of the Impalas and later the Equinox,” he said.
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath met with regional chair John Henry and Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter on Friday, Nov. 30, and then later held a roundtable with members of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
“We had a very good roundtable discussion about not only what we can do to provide hope for workers at the plant but also to talk about the community, business community, social services community and elected representatives need to be on the same page to continue to fight for jobs in this community,” Horwath told media. “But also to support workers who may be impacted should things not go the way we want and make sure this community has a very bright future going.”
After speaking with workers, Horwath says there is a sense of “determination,” but also desire to be acknowledged, something she believes is missing from the Premier.
She was struck by the number of people who, “wanted that human contact and that acknowledgement from somebody in a leadership position that I know what they’re feeling and that I’m there to help feel what they are feeling.”
Horwath says the province needs a comprehensive strategy to protect manufacturing and auto sector jobs.
“What I would say is it’s not just a matter of fighting for these jobs… and we will and people need to know we have a government that is prepared to do that, but it’s the bigger picture as well because we need decent quality jobs, jobs like auto jobs… I know those kind of jobs put food on the table, provides a good quality of life and good security quality of life for families, we can’t just let those type of jobs to seep away in Ontario and Canada,” she says.
French says “it is absolutely worth the fight” but it is going to be a tough road moving forward.
“So while there is hope absolutely, there is the realty that we are all in this together and we are going to need strategies, not just the end game,” she says. “Oshawa is pretty tough, but we are going to have to come together, and that’s all levels of government.”
Paterson says the company has a direct approach as to not create false hope production at the plant will continue.
“We know there is no replacement program,” he told The Express.
He didn’t give a specific date, but Paterson says he expects a rollback of production to begin sometime next summer.
In the meantime, he says the company is taking steps to help workers with their futures.
Paterson says GM plans to work with Durham College, UOIT and the government.
He noted the departing workers will be in “high demand in a number of different industries.”
According to Paterson, the company plans to partner with its local dealers to train and hire interested workers to become auto service technicians.
“Who better than those who have built our products to service our products,” he asked.
While some have deemed this as the end of the “General Motors-era” in Oshawa, Paterson says there are still 1,000 workers at both the corporate headquarters and Canadian Technical Centre, and an additional at local OnStar calling centres.
“We’re not going anywhere. We’ll still be here,” he said.
With that said, Paterson said it is a “tough” situation for all involved.
“It’s tough, and change is hard, and it’s just not hard in Oshawa, but different cities across the world, but I really believe it is the right thing for the company in the long run,” he stated.