GM to close Oshawa plant after blindsiding workers

Published: November 29, 2018

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Oshawa, Ontario, a city traditionally described as the automotive capital of Canada, is slowly losing grip on the industry that helped define it. Being the automotive capital of the country largely rested on the presence of General Motors Canadian division, which has been based in Oshawa for decades.

Earlier this week, the city was rocked when GM announced it was closing its assembly plant in the city, with final manufacturing to be complete in December 2019. While the economy of Oshawa no longer rests on GM quite as much as it once did, the American car manufacturer remains the city’s largest employer. With the announcement of the plant closure, thousands of jobs will be lost.

The move is a part of GM’s cost cutting program that will see it close five plants in North America. It was a decision that blindsided Oshawa and its mayor, John Henry. Speaking after the announcement, Henry said GM had not hinted it would be closing its assembly operations in the town of 160,000 people.

“There was no heads-up,” Henry confirmed. The mayor is directly linked to the GM plant as his grandfather, father, and brothers worked for GM Canada. Indeed, Henry’s history is a familiar narrative in Oshawa. Families throughout the city have lived with and relied on GM for generations and many are now wondering how they will survive when the plant closes.

It’s true the plant has already lost its impact in recent years. GM’s general struggles in the auto market have seen the company reduce employment at the plant steadily over the last decade. During the halcyon days of GM manufacturing in the 1980s, the Oshawa plant employed 23,000. That figure has fallen to 2,800 in 2018.

One of the most interesting aspects of the closure is the announcement comes just weeks after the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In an example of either irony or simply getting things terribly wrong, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland recently wrote “the car industry now has stability and room to grow and thrive.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, ahead of a G20 summit in Buenos Aires, expressed “deep disappointment” over the closure and said the government will help workers get “back on their feet”.

There are many employees who will think General Motors owe Canada. Indeed, when the company filed for bankruptcy during the 2009 economic crisis, the federal and Ontario governments handed over more than $10 billion to GM in bailout money. The automotive giant received a similar bailout package in the United States.

Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, the union for automotive workers, insisted GM was showing Canada and the US its “middle finger” considering that previous bail out. Speaking to protesting workers at the Oshawa plant, Dias promised that “they are not closing our damn plant without one hell of a fight.”