Last year, General Motors announced its plan to close an auto assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario, as well as four others in the US. Workers at the plant are represented by Unifor. Here, Bruce Allen criticizes Unifor’s “fightback” against General Motors’ plan, and suggests a much more ambitious strategy for saving auto jobs. Allen is a paralegal and retired autoworker who has held leadership positions in Unifor, and previously, the Canadian Auto Workers, since 1987. 

At the end of November 2018, General Motors announced that its Oshawa assembly plant, which employed 2,600 workers, would cease operations at the end of 2019.  GM’s decision to close the Oshawa assembly plant was part of a decision to broadly restructure its operations, resulting in the closure of a total of five assembly plants.  The other four plants are in the US.  The Oshawa GM workers are represented by Unifor and were previously represented by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW).  Unifor was formed out of a merger between the CAW and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers in 2013. 

Unifor leaders reacted angrily to the closure announcement.  They cited commitments GM had made in the 2016 contract negotiations with Unifor, to continue its operations in Oshawa until late 2020, coinciding with the next round of negotiations.  Unifor responded to the closure announcement with the launch of a national fightback campaign aimed at keeping the GM Oshawa assembly plant open and saving the jobs of the workers employed there.

The harsh reality of the Unifor-GM agreement to “save” the jobs of Oshawa GM workers is undeniable. Together GM workers and about 2,500 low paid workers employed by the supplier companies located in and around GM Oshawa will see a workforce of over 5,000 shrink to about 300. What’s more, the long term employment of the 300 GM workers who will survive the assembly plant’s closure is uncertain. No one is guaranteeing these remaining jobs to be located in a small stamping operation will survive past the 2020 Unifor – GM contract negotiations. GM’s promises that there could eventually be up to 500 jobs are as worthless as its unkept job security promises to Oshawa workers in the past.

The overlooked, poorly paid workers in the supplier operations are the most victimized by this agreement. They get nothing. By contrast, senior Oshawa GM workers eligible to retire or nearly eligible to retire can either get lucrative retirement incentives with pensions or the opportunity to fill a small number of job openings the agreement will create in what’s left of the St. Catharines GM plant. 

Oshawa will be devastated. To grasp this one only needs to recall how union leaders always said that every auto industry job generates six or more jobs in surrounding communities. Do the math in order to grasp the magnitude of the economic hit Oshawa faces. Oshawa only needs to recall what happened to Flint, Michigan after GM gutted its operations there, slashing the workforce to a fraction of what it once was, leaving behind a desperate population now living with a water supply poisoned by lead.

This sorry outcome is all there is to show for an ineffective Unifor fightback to save GM Oshawa. Hampered by a glaring lack of support from the rest of a labour movement (Unifor withdrew from the CLC in 2018), little support from Unifor leadership where GM has other operations, and an impotent boycott that pandered to xenophobia by targeting GM vehicles made by Mexican autoworkers, this fightback was little more than a minor nuisance to GM. Indeed, GM relished the lack of support for the fightback outside of Oshawa. GM had to be especially pleased by the UAW’s [United Auto Workers, which represents GM workers in the US] lack of interest in supporting a Unifor fightback.

Things did not have to turn out so badly. GM retirees in Oshawa and St. Catharines, who are the backbone of what activism there still is in the auto sector, showed this. They showed more willingness to fight back than the active members, with the notable exception of the Oshawa GM workers, who staged brief sit-in strikes immediately after the closure announcement. The retirees also showed a degree of radicalism absent from auto since the Oshawa Fabrication Plant was occupied during the successful twenty-day strike against GM in 1996. 

Oshawa retirees did this by calling for the nationalization of GM Oshawa and retooling it to produce future-oriented, green vehicle technology. Likewise, St. Catharines retirees wrote to Unifor President Jerry Dias calling for the plant to be handed over to the workforce and the community to continue operations much like idled factories in Argentina have been successfully occupied and run by the workers who worked in them.
Unifor’s national leadership disregarded these ideas. The agreement to ostensibly save 300 jobs is all they came up with instead.

In effect, the Oshawa and St. Catharines retirees saw the closure announcement as an opportunity to save far more jobs, protect the community of Oshawa, and produce non-carbon-emitting vehicles suited to addressing the accelerating climate change crisis. Top Unifor leadership and leading federal and provincial politicians inexcusably failed to do likewise. They weren’t interested. Just as they aren’t interested in doing what’s necessary to tackle the accelerating climate change crisis.
Consequently, most of the affected workers face a fate of trying to make it in an increasingly low-wage economy involving more and more precarious work. Meanwhile time is running out to seriously address the climate crisis. 

Every challenge presents an opportunity. GM’s Oshawa closure announcement presented an opportunity to address the crisis facing these workers and the ecological crisis threatening the planet. That opportunity was squandered. It was squandered by leaders lacking vision who demonstrated their subservience to Capital by bending to the will of GM.