By a GM Oshawa assembly line worker
On Friday, June 10th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a celebratory visit to Oshawa, Ontario for the announcement of 1,000 new Canadian engineering jobs– an announcement that drew both praise and ire from the production workers of General Motors’ car and feeder plants, who find themselves in a potential strike position with about 30,000 auto and spin-off jobs hanging in the balance of contract negotiations slated for the fall of 2016.
Trudeau was met by Unifor National President Jerry Dias, Unifor Local 222 President Colin James, and top Canadian GM executives at their engineering headquarters for the official announcement. As his motorcade arrived, a small group of active and retired autoworkers gathered out front, calling on the multibillion dollar auto giant to commit product for the Oshawa assembly plant, which has no dedicated product beyond 2017.
Bailouts & concessions
While some officials questioned their frustration in light of this positive announcement, their message was clear:
These new jobs are great, but we deserve much more. General Motors was bailed out to the tune of $10 billion by Canadian taxpayers back in 2009, and in return we are owed new product in the Oshawa assembly plant.
They’re absolutely right– GM does owe us, and big time.
Facing bankruptcy in the wake of recession and mismanagement, the company was shocked back to life by the very workers and citizens they are leaving in limbo today. Not only was GM bailed out, but their workforce suffered massive concessions to keep the company competitive during the downturn, weathering a decade of frozen wages and clawed back benefits while bitterly agreeing to the introduction of Supplemental Workforce Employees– an underclass of precarious, tiered wage workers without the same benefits or job security as full seniority workers. The company has also routinely made use of FTPT’s, which stands for- and I wish I was making this up- Full Time Temporary Part Time workers. Confused? You should be.
In addition to these concessions and job-title oxymorons, GM retirees were forced into giving up their PCOLA ( Pension Cost of Living Allowance) and many are now being left behind by inflation after giving their best years to GM with the promise of a dignified retirement.
GM’s hostage bargaining
To date, the official position of GM is that it will not allocate new product to Oshawa until after a new collective agreement is reached this fall. While some might call this a smart negotiation tactic, for Oshawa and the surrounding community this truly is a hostage situation.
An independent economic impact study commissioned by Unifor and released in 2015 has pegged the loss from plant closure at around $5Bn from Ontario’s GDP with $1Bn in lost revenue both provincially and federally. In this age of neoliberal austerity, our social safety net needs every dime it can get, and especially if 30,000 local workers could find themselves jobless in the next few years.
Borrowed time? Time to strike?
This is just another saga in the greedy, ruthless history of General Motors, who announced the closure of the Oshawa Truck Plant mere weeks after workers ratified a collective agreement back in 2008. A once burgeoning workforce of over 23,000 in GM Oshawa alone has seen itself reduced to just over 2,000 production and trade workers today. Despite the announcement of 1,000 engineering jobs- of which roughly 300 will be local- there is very little on the horizon to suggest that the bleeding will stop any time soon. Over 1,000 jobs were just lost in 2015 when the Camaro left town for production in Michigan.
With the TPP looming, it looks as though manufacturing in Ontario is living on borrowed time, and our auto industry is amongst the first on the Liberal chopping block. Facing so much uncertainty, only a few things can be said for sure:
The struggle for the future of autoworkers in Oshawa will be a no-holds-barred ditch fight against an ungrateful corporate giant with no conscience or sense of public responsibility. If the federal government doesn’t respond to union lobbying efforts in a meaningful way, there will be another historic fight for Local 222 and the surrounding community.
Unifor National President Jerry Dias has said there will be a strike if no product is announced before bargaining begins. Meanwhile, the anger and frustration of production workers is becoming palpable on the shop floor, and a ‘strike’ may turn out to be an understatement.