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June 11, 2019

Where was Mr. Trudeau when GM workers needed him?

Scott Stockdale

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In late November last year, when General Motors (GM) announced it was closing it's Oshawa, Ontario plant at the end of 2019, thus putting more than 2,500 employees out of work, Jerry Dias, the head of Unifor - the union representing workers at General Motors in Oshawa - argued the company's decision could lead to the collapse of the auto-parts industry in Canada and demanded a sharp response from the Trudeau government.

Mr. Dias said GM has moved production of five models of vehicle to Mexico and the US in the past few years, and if the Oshawa plant closes, the company will have only one left here. He blamed low labour standards in Mexico, and called on Prime Minister Trudeau to work with US President Donald Trump to keep manufacturing jobs from shifting south. He said the Trudeau government should put tariffs on GM vehicles coming out of Mexico.

Instead of fighting to keep the car manufacturing plant that employs 2,500 people in Oshawa, Prime Minister Trudeau said he spoke to GM CEO Mary Barra about the matter and expressed his disappointment in her company’s decision to cease its manufacturing operations in the city. He did, however, offer support for the workers at the Oshawa plant, pledging to do what he could for the workers and their families.

Subsequently, after question period in parliament, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the Liberal government had done what it could to support the industry and its up to General Motors to respond.

“We’ve stepped up as a government. We said we’d put forward policies and programs to support the automotive sector. Now, the onus is on the company to demonstrate that they want a future in Canada,” Mr. Bains said.

This tepid response from the Trudeau government was not good enough for Mr. Dias, as he vowed to keep fighting to keep GM jobs in Canada, even if he had to go it alone, which is what he did. He even led a boycott campaign encouraging Canadians – who purchase 300,00 General Motors cars a year - to stop buying them. Mr. Dias also criticized GM for participating in “slave labour” at plants in Mexico, which he called “corporate greed, plain and simple.”

The revamped North American trade pact - signed in November 2018 but not yet ratified by the US or Canada – should help eventually, but the parts that apply to the auto sector won’t kick in for years and by then it could be too late, Mr. Dias said.

Recently, when GM Canada president Travis Hester announced the so-called "Transformation Agreement" as a result of which GM will be investing $170 million in a new business model, creating 300 new jobs at its Oshawa plant, the Trudeau government wasn't involved. In his announcement, Mr. Hester reiterated that the Oshawa site will still end vehicle production at the end of 2019. Instead of manufacturing vehicles, the Oshawa facility will manufacture parts for GM vehicles.

Moreover, 22 hectares of the facility will be converted into a test track for autonomous and other advanced vehicles, which Mr. Hester said will help expand the nearby Canadian Technical Centre.

"I want to send a strong and positive message from GM to the people of Oshawa," he said. "With our Canadian headquarters, our sales and marketing organization, the OnStar support centre, the Oshawa engineering centre, and the new announcements just mentioned here, GM plans to be one of Oshawa's leading companies and employers for many decades to come."

While a far cry from the 2,500 jobs that were lost, Mr. Dias saw GM's initiative as a possible sign that GM may not leave Oshawa for good.

“We look at this as a start of something new to keep a footprint in Oshawa,” Mr. Dias said.

“In the years to come there will be many more jobs than the 300 but we know there have been many sleepless nights over the people who will be losing their jobs.”

Mr. Dias added that he knew if he didn't fight Canada would have got nothing.

Christo Aivalis, a labour relations expert at the University of Toronto, said the deal is a victory for the union. It's telling that he didn't mention the Trudeau government which should have been at the forefront of the fight to save Canadian jobs.

"I think Unifor was able to tap into a sense that these are good jobs for Canadian workers and GM has, for a long time, had a lot of loyalty from Canadian consumers," Mr. Aivalis said.

"Maybe (GM) saw real pressure from Unifor and that trickled down into the general public and they felt that there was real risk that a total closure would cause real brand damage."

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