Workers ‘live scared’ as GM mulls Oshawa plant future

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Oshawa, Ontario —  Drive around this city of 160,000 and it’s hard not to see signs of General Motors Co.’s long heritage.

Col. Robert Samuel McLaughlin founded a car company that eventually became GM Canada. His name is on a museum in Oshawa, his former estate is maintained by the city, and visitors to GM’s Canada headquarters travel a road named in his honor. The Oshawa Generals play minor-league hockey at General Motors Centre arena.

“I’ve always thought my entire life that General Motors would build cars here until the end of time,” Oshawa Mayor John Henry said last month from his downtown office.

But it’s looking more likely that may not be GM’s plan. The company has said for two years it won’t make new vehicle commitments or investments here until after negotiations with its labor union. The two begin talks Wednesday in Toronto for nearly 3,900 workers at its Oshawa Assembly Plant, St. Catharines Propulsion and a parts distribution center in Woodstock.

Plant’s future at stake in Canada auto talks

Mayor Henry, the son of an Oshawa Assembly autoworker who has two brothers still working in the plant, is worried. GM is among the largest employers and provides substantial tax revenue.

In June, the Oshawa City Council passed a resolution asking that GM build electric cars there. Henry has written GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra twice: “I wanted to show her what General Motors has helped to build.” She hasn’t responded.

The Oshawa Assembly Plant opened in 1953, though car production under the GM umbrella dates to several decades prior. Analysts believe the carmaker has no vehicles slated for production there beyond 2019.

“We want a future for our young members, but also for the young members in our spin-off jobs, the feeder plants,” said Colin James, president of Unifor Local 222.

That union local represents 27 facilities including Oshawa Assembly and numerous suppliers — some that only make parts for Oshawa. A Yangfeng Automotive Interiors plant that supplied Oshawa Assembly recently closed, leaving about 280 unemployed. The union says the auto industry employs 5,600 workers directly in the city.

About 2,400 hourly employees work at Oshawa Assembly, down from more than 15,000 in the early 1990s. GM directly employs about 3,750 in Oshawa and has another 1,100 contract employees at customer service centers here.

A union economic impact study estimates that if vehicle production ends in Oshawa, in just two years the Canadian gross domestic productwould fall by more than 5 billion Canadian dollars and Canadian governments would lose CA$1 billion combined in revenue. The study estimates the plant is responsible for as many as 33,000 regional jobs.

Jim Wheeler, a plant union rep with 31 years with GM, says without new vehicles earmarked for the plant, he would be forced to retire before he’d like. Wheeler, 50, of Bowmanville, Ontario, is especially worried because his son Andrew, 25, works there, too.

“There’s a lot of good people in here and not just union guys, it’s company people as well that would lose their jobs. It’s everybody,” the elder Wheeler said while leaving his shift in late July. “For every one that works here, there’s a handful that work in another place, the supplier parts, manufacturers. We get looked after here, we get buyouts, but they don’t. So the hit to the local economy’s going to be huge.”

Matt Smith, 28, who has worked at the Oshawa plant 10 years, is building a new house in Port Hope, Ontario, that he would have to sell if GM closes the plant. He is optimistic the union can land a new vehicle or two during negotiations.

“We do everything they ask every day and then they don’t give you any heads-up or any commitment to anything. You live scared,” Smith said.

In June, GM announced plans to hire up to 700 engineers over the next few years in Ontario to focus on connected cars and autonomous vehicle work. The engineers will be housed in Oshawa and at a new automotive software development center in nearby Markham, Ontario.

James believes the announcement just before bargaining was “a smoke screen to soften the blow, make it look to the public perception that General Motors is hiring.”

GM declined to comment.

The union has threatened to strike if it doesn’t get new investment and product commitments at the bargaining table. GM since 2009 has invested more than CA$3 billion into manufacturing and engineering.

Tim Lepine, 36, of Oshawa who builds the Equinox, said he’d likely leave Oshawa if the plant closes. “And I think that’ll be the story for a lot of people, just trying to find work, trying to find somewhere cheaper to live.”