GM to close Oshawa factory

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

You can’t choose where you’re fired, but it might help if you could. Jen Cowie was at a show in Toronto on the night of Nov. 26, 2018, when she received a news notification telling her that Oshawa’s General Motors (GM) factory, where she’s worked for decades, would be shut down by 2020. “We’ve taken cut after cut and still do a good job and to have that slap in the face? I don’t understand. How can you praise a plant for its quality and productivity and not keep it there?”

Cowie is one of the thousands of GM workers, tens of thousands of Oshawians, to be discarded by GM in their announcement severing contracts with the plant. The company is quick to explain that the factory will not “close” but that jobs will be “unallocated.” It defends the decision by pointing to its pursuit of environmentally efficient vehicles and lower consumer demand for its products.

In the 1980s, GM invested billions in the Oshawa plant, molding it into what is now Oshawa’s largest employer with over 4,000 direct employees and thousands of others dependent on contract jobs. Unifor, the union representing Oshawa’s GM workers, estimates that of the city’s 160,000 strong population, over 50,000 could be affected.

In 2008, GM renovated the plant into flexible manufacturing, allowing more efficient shifts between models and assembly lines, which made it a more robust component of GM’s global supply chain. By the 2008 auto-industry meltdown, Canadian and Ontario governments were more than willing to subsidize the company with over 10 million USD, much of which has been written off since 2010. The Beaverton may have reported on this relationship best in a November satire titled “GM asks for another bailout to improve efficiency of lay-off process.”

But after a few years, investors grew suspicious. While the absolute amount of products sold by GM had increased, its share in the North American auto market had fallen, leading to consistently depreciated stocks. Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, portrays the cuts as attempt to appease the investment community.

But Unifor has done little beyond bombast. Following the closure, Dias vowed, “they are not closing our damn plant without one hell of a fight,” already appearing to accept its foreseen demise. Other union complaints echo these hollow appeals. They include #OshawaMadeGM and a new advert blaming Mexico for the closure. Ontario Premier Doug Ford described how there is little that government can do, while on the morning of the announcement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a tweet expressing “deep disappointment” with GM. In this case, the two are aligned. They sigh, toss up their hands, and blame unfortunate market necessities.

And they’re right to. GM’s closure of their Oshawa bureau, whether motivated by technological advances or by stock market interest, is a rational (management) response to market capitalism. And in a globalized economy, so is the transfer of jobs to lower wage economies. What Trudeau and Ford avoid, however, is that the role of government in these conditions, the role of unions, must be to either mitigate these practices or address them.

The issue then shifts from questioning the feasibility of government action to questioning its priorities. How do we protect manufacturing jobs while building a green economy? Sam Ginden dissolved this supposed opposition in an article that—and I say this with great respect—reads more like an instructional manual than a news column. It advises the immediate seizure of GM’s Oshawa property—covered by their unpaid government loans—reconstituted into a plant specializing in green vehicles and public transportation. This process is similar to that advised by progressive Democrats in the United States and their “Green New Deal.” GM has already offered to train plant workers in new industries, while the factory’s output is flexible thanks to their 2008 renovation. Why not take them up on that offer?

In 1996, when GM hoped to outsource jobs from Oshawa, workers stormed the factory and welded its doors shut to prevent any capital from escaping. Management accepted their demands after three weeks of strikes. Success required the combination of developed proposals with concentrated mass action. Today, Oshawa has neither—with mobilization, it might have both.