The Ontario government isn’t pleased with Unifor’s handling of General Motors’ decision to close Oshawa Car Assembly. Like the UAW, Canada’s autoworker union has been extremely vocal in its opposition to GM’s restructuring plan. Over the last few months Unifor members have picketed, held multiple rallies, protested the automaker during the North American International Auto Show, called for a boycott, and aired commercials condemning the manufacturer during the Super Bowl.
Todd Smith, Ontario’s minister of economic development, job creation and trade, believes all of this has been detrimental to future business investment. “The Unifor message hasn’t been helpful, not just for General Motors but the auto industry in Ontario,” he said during the Automotive News Canada Congress in Toronto.
“We would really like to have a better partner with Unifor so we’re looking after those affected employees in Oshawa. We’re committed with training colleges and universities and the rapid response team that is on the ground there to help with re-training with some of the programs we’re putting in place like the microcredentialing pilot for affected workers and some of the other programs,” Smith continued. “There’s opportunities for those workers, but we need Unifor to come to the table and work with us so we can look after those employees and find them employment elsewhere.”
Unifor has been at odds with the Ontario government for a while now. Back in November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ontario Premier Doug Ford should speak up more for auto workers — leading to accusations from Ford that the PM was “selling false hope and empty promises” to auto workers about to lose their jobs.
At the time, Unifor President Jerry Dias seemed hopeful he could find an ally in Trudeau. In fact, the prime minister had already pledged his support years earlier. “My government is pleased to be a solid partner with workers,” Trudeau told a union crowd back in 2016. “The labour movement believes in justice, compassion, and the growth and success of Canada’s middle class. And on that, our government shares common ground with you … We know that working people are not the enemy. And we know that after a decade of — to be polite about it — neglect, the labour movement deserves fairness from the federal government.”
But a lack of direct support from Canadian officials following GM’s decision to shutter Oshawa has tempered Dias’ optimism. In the union’s eyes, Premier Ford received a downgrade for similar reasons. However, there is now a (provincial) government plan in place. On Thursday, Smith and Ford laid out a $30 million (C$40 million) strategy to encourage investment, retraining, apprenticeships, and more in Ontario’s automotive sector over the next three years.
“Our government understands what auto companies need to thrive and prosper in our province,” explained Ford. “This is like Christmas coming — us getting elected — to industries across the province. They’re as happy as anything. They actually have a business-minded government.”
Dias remains unsold on the idea.
“The only thing that Todd Smith and others are looking to do right now is cover their political backside, Dias said. “I don’t know how the government can say they have the plan to create jobs, but have no plans to save the ones that are already here, and herein lays the problem.”
Unlike Smith, the Unifor president wasn’t at the Automotive Congress. Instead, he attended a rally in Oshawa, fronted by music legend Sting, to protest General Motors — where he unleashed some of his finest verbal vitriol to date.
“You’d think Doug Ford would have been in Oshawa today with the workers. Instead, he tried to create a diversion in Woodbridge and he made a non-announcement,” Dias told Automotive News over the phone. “The media that were here today in Oshawa were all laughing because [Ford] didn’t fool a soul. That was a diversion and he looked stupid.”
“They are a government that lacks any sort of courage,” he continued. “Let’s take their arguments to the next natural progression. Here’s a government that is saying they are going to put procedures in place to help attract investment, yet 14,000 jobs are going to leave Ontario and they are not lifting one finger. So it’s pretty difficult for them to argue with any conviction that they have a plan. What they did was roll out the red carpet for General Motors to leave.”
While only 2,600 employees are slated to lose their jobs at Oshawa, Unifor believes that layoffs could be as high as 14,000 once suppliers and supplementary positions are accounted for.
“I’m fascinated about how this is a government that fancies themselves as [working] for working-class people, but don’t lift a finger to defend them. So here we get Sting, who arguably has no skin in the game at all, does a benefit performance in Oshawa and starts criticizing GM’s decision,” Dias complained. “The Ford government has never once criticized GM’s decision. You know why? Because they believe in GM’s right to close the Oshawa complex more than they believe in the rights of Ontario workers to have good-paying jobs. And that’s the problem. They are looking so stupid.”
Legally, General Motors does have the right to close the facility. Despite Unifor harping on the vast sums of money Canadian and U.S. governments spent to bail GM out during the recession, there’s no obligation for it to continue operating within either nation. However, he does have a valid point about members of his government — many of whom publicly promised to back Unifor in the past, but came up short on delivering the kind of help it expected in its fight with General Motors. At least they’ll always have Sting.