‘This is not a good news story,’ as GM ends production in Oshawa

A glimpse inside GM's South Plant in Oshawa circa 1980.

General Motors has stood in Oshawa for more than a century. The city and the company grew together in symbiosis, one supporting the other so each could live.

Now the titan of industry has abandoned its host.

The final vehicles are expected to roll off the assembly line today.

Dean McClure, a 13-year veteran of the Oshawa’s assembly plant, say GM’s leaving came as no shock.

“I had a feeling. It is what it is. I’ve been here long enough. I know how this place is,” McClure said. “This is different, but they’re known to announce things like that before Christmas.”

GM announced the closure at the dawn of the work day on Nov. 26, 2018. McClure said reactions ranged from shock, disappointment and rage.

“A lot of the newer guys were surprised,” he said.

The closure will put more than 2,000 people out of work. Some will remain to make after-market parts, but most face an uncertain future.

This closure will also have wide-ranging economic effects throughout Oshawa, Ontario and Canada as a whole. Dozens of plants in Belleville, Trenton and Ajax, feed parts to GM in Oshawa. Numerous businesses and restaurants survive because of the plant’s proximity.

Finally, this demonstrates how Canada’s entire manufacturing sector is struggling to survive.

To understand the impact of GM’s death in Oshawa, one has to understand its life. Curator of the Canadian Automotive Museum, Alexander Gates, has made a career of studying that life.

In 1918, Oshawa’s industry leader, Samuel McLaughlin, joined his company, the McLaughlin Motor Car Company, among the first car manufacturers in Canada, with Detroit-based Buick. General Motors was born.

“From that point on General Motors is going to be a major player in the city,” said Gates.

From there, GM grew to dominate the landscape in Oshawa. The downtown core was designed to support production, with GM owning 2.2 million square feet of it.

“There was a massive influx of people. Immigrants came to town. Everything was in a very small community,” said Gates. Oshawa and GM grew together until after the Second World War. In 1953, production moved from downtown to its current facility, known as the South Plant.

On the edge of town, GM continued to grow. It reached its peak in the 1980s, when the plant was re-christened the “Autoplex”. GM employed nearly 25,000 people in Oshawa. It has declined ever since.

This decline culminated in the 2008 auto sector crash. The crash was an effect of that year’s larger financial meltdown. Despite record profits that year, GM received a $10.5 billion, taxpayer funded, bailout. As revealed in a CBC Access to Information request, GM still owed $1.2 billion in March, 2017.

Since the bailout, workers have dreaded further decline.

The position GM finds itself in has proven unconscionable to many of its workers.

However, McClure seems optimistic about his future job prospects. Many workers will have the option to work at the St. Catherines assembly plant. Many were given comfortable retirement or severance packages.

McClure refused his.

“It wasn’t really worth it,” he said.

However, Statistics Canada is less optimistic. In its November 2019 report, Statistics Canada found a net loss of 71,000 jobs. In a report on manufacturing in 2018, it found the automotive industry dropped $3.4 billion or 5 per cent because of factory shutdowns and labour disputes.

This process has been very difficult for the affected workers. Many are concerned for their well-being, including Unifor Local 222 President Colin James.

James said Unifor is working hard to support its members.

“There’s uncertainty and anxiety of some of our members. Some of our members have mental health issues. It’s depression for some. This is not a good news story,” James said.

However, McClure is largely unimpressed.

“[Colin] is kinda useless. He’s a good man, but he’s dealing with a lot,” said McClure.

However, he said he has a great deal of respect for his local union administration.

The closure reaches far beyond GM workers. It is going to have colossal ripple effects throughout Ontario. James said a report the union conducted found 15,000-20,000 jobs will be affected in the province.

Many of the feeder plants James describes may also shut down.

One Ajax plant employs 77 workers, another in Belleville nearly 500.

“The list goes on and on,” said James.

James is also scared for businesses that benefit from their proximity to the assembly plant.

“There’s a devastating impact to the city of Oshawa, and to the surrounding businesses. Places like Mister Safety Shoes, or even Mr. Burger, rely probably 80 per cent of their business from General Motors,” he said.

Durham College is helping by offering retraining programs and job fairs for affected workers, which James called, “very successful.” They are planning at least one more. However, it only applies to directly affected workers.

James said the next few years are going to be very difficult for the manufacturing sector as a whole unless it receives more help.

“The provincial and the federal government did absolutely nothing to help us. It seems Canada needs to do a lot more for the manufacturing base,” he said.

McClure concurs.

“Things can’t get much worse,” he said.

Many of the concerns expressed are due to factors beyond anyone’s control. James cites the impact of automation and globalization.

“When we see good paying jobs leaving and going overseas, and nothing being done to protect workers, there’s a problem,” he said.

However, McClure thinks things will shake out for him. He’s a trained stone mason and fork lift driver.

However, other workers are not so lucky. James said many of his members are scared for their future,

“There are a large group of workers, that need to keep working. They’re younger members that have families. There’s uncertainty how they’re going to pay their bills.”