Despite ongoing turmoil in the country’s oilpatch, with the government of Alberta paying to have white Dodge Durango R/T SUVs project a constantly updating tally of money lost due to discounted Canadian oil prices onto the sides of downtown Ottawa buildings, the big economic story north of the border remains General Motors.
After squashing rumors of a plant closure during the last round of union bargaining, the automaker announced late last month that the city of Oshawa, Ontario’s worst fears would indeed come true. Oshawa Assembly will close by the end of 2019, leaving some 2,500 GM workers out of a job.
It’s not the kind of situation a newly minted company president wants to preside over, but that’s the plate Travis Hester was handed from the bigwigs in the Renaissance Center.
Hester’s predecessor, if you’ll remember, took off in April to head GM’s Cadillac division. That leaves the new prez to tell the employees of a historic auto plant that opened in 1907 — as well as their union — that product will dry up by December 2019.
The product side of things was well known, as no new promises came down from head office after GM’s decision to perform final assembly of some full-size pickups there. It looked like a stopgap measure following the 2016 bargaining process, and we can now see it for what it was. Meanwhile, the plant has bled product for years. The Cadillac XTS disappears soon from GM Canada’s lakeside facility, as will the Chevrolet Impala. Both models are being discontinued as part of a broader series of cuts that also impact two U.S. assembly plants and two transmission facilities.
Speaking to CBC, Hester said GM isn’t pulling up stakes. Jobs will continue to be created in Ontario, just not at the Oshawa plant. Rabble rousing by Jerry Dias, president of Canadian autoworkers’ union Unifor, and fiery statements from political representatives will not sway the decision, either.
“So it’s very difficult to have a discussion on anything beyond December 2019 because there isn’t anything to build,” he said of the plant, adding that he’s made it “very clear” to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that “we don’t have any allocation.”
The same situation faces workers at the Detroit-Hamtramck facility, home of the Impala, Buick LaCrosse, and Chevrolet Volt, as well as the Chevrolet Cruze plant in Lordstown, Ohio. Hester said the company plans to fulfill its promise to hire nearly 1,000 workers at GM’s Canadian Technical Center in Markham, Ontario, which opened early last year. Another 500 jobs should be created there by 2020, he said.
“We’re adding jobs and we’re adding development expertise and all the associated things that go with that into Canada, where it just simply wasn’t in the past,” Hester said. “We see the future very strong here and in Canada for the development side.”
That doesn’t help line workers who lack the skills needed to serve as the brains behind GM’s much-publicized push for electric and autonomous vehicles.
Speaking after the closure announcement, Premier Ford said a government-funded training program would provide some measure of assistance to workers. “As a first step, I will be authorizing Employment Ontario to deploy its Rapid Re-Employment and Training Services program to provide impacted local workers with targeted local training and jobs services to help them regain employment as quickly as possible,” he said. “We are looking at how best to align our programs to ensure maximum support is available for affected employees and their families. In speaking with GM, we have stressed the importance of supporting their employees through this difficult transition.”
Dias, who loathes Ford and spent much of the past several months in the orbit of the Canadian government’s NAFTA renegotiation team (before kicking off a campaign against Trudeau’s Conservative opponent in the upcoming federal election), vows to fight this seemingly unforeseen closure.
“There’s not going to be any discussions with General Motors about what this orderly wind down looks like as it will be anything but orderly,” Dias said last week.
South of the border, UAW leadership is also prepping for a fight. The union claims GM is reneging on its promise to hold off on any plant closures until 2020. Unifor’s piggybacking on this claim.
“We’ve seen that document, and we don’t believe the document states we can’t do that,” Hester said Monday, ahead of talks with the union.
[Images: General Motors]