Oshawa is a city that’s hard to love. Train tracks run down streets near the dilapidated city centre, the local regiment’s hall is close to a clinic for drug addicts, and Oshawa has one of the highest unemployment rates anywhere across Canada.
And things are going to get a lot worse for this city just 60 kilometres east of Toronto on the main Highway 401 to Montreal, hugging the northern shores of Lake Ontario.
General Motors, the largest employer in the city, announced in late November that it is to close its remaining auto assembly line, with the loss of 2,500 jobs.
GM — “the Motors” — once employed 40,000 people in this city of 170,000. And for every job in the car plants, there are another nine jobs related to the assembly lines — everything from factories that build car seats and autoglass, cafes, jobs on the railways where the finished vehicles are shipped across North America, to hobby shops that rely on the fishermen and hunters who work at the plant. Now, the last 2,500 jobs at the Motors are to go. The plant currently makes Chevrolet Impalas and a Cadillac model.
Chris Buckley, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, said the move is “absolutely shameful” and that GM should treat its workers better.
“General Motors should be disgusted on how they’re rewarding these members,” Buckley said. “This is going to be absolutely devastating.”
But the day has been coming for a long time. I was the City Editor for the Oshawa Times — the now-closed daily newspaper serving the blue-collar city — between 1989 and 1994. Everything revolved around the plants, the ancillary factories, the workers and the social and sporting life that was centred on the Motors. And on the company itself, with the monthly reports of car sales between GM, Ford and Chrysler — the so-called “Big Three” automakers being big news and a cause for analysis and reaction, depending on the figures.
And for a while, those figures were good — and GM invested heavily in Oshawa.
Production reached its peak in the 1980s after a nearly $8 billion (Dh22 billion) investment in GM’s Canadian manufacturing facilities, making Oshawa ‘Autoplex’ one of the biggest assembly plants in the world, boasting a workforce of over 40,000. Nearly 4,000 jobs were lost when, in late 2005, GM announced the closure of Oshawa’s No 2 plant and the elimination of a shift at the No 1 plant. That was followed in 2008 with the closure of the city’s truck plant, leading to a nearly two-week blockade of GM Canada’s head office in Oshawa.
The assembly plant has formed the backbone of Oshawa’s economy for more than 100 years
Initially, Oshawa Mayor John Henry had hoped news of the closure was “just a rumour,” but several hours after it made national headlines, he predicted “there’s more to this than what we know.”
GM workers have been good for Oshawa, Henry noted, raising millions of dollars for charities like the local United Way even during hard economic times.
“It’s going to change the spending habits in this community,” he said, adding the effects will be felt instantly especially during the Christmas season. “We thought with the recent investments that General Motors had made, that this plant was going to continue to produce vehicles for a long period of time.”
He worked at the plant as a teen, and his father and brother worked there too.
Gerry Kalor recalls when the city was inundated with “Iraqi taxis”.
“Back in the 1980s, one of the lines was building the [Chevrolet] Caprice,” the retired electrician says. “The vast majority of North American cars are automatic. Someone ordered several thousand specially modified Caprices to be built with a four-speed manual gearshift for export to Iraq. But the Iran-Iraq war broke out, and GM was left with thousands of these things. They offered them off to employees at a discounted price. We called them ‘Iraqi taxis’. It was only place in North America where there were four-on-the-floor stick shift Chevy Caprices.”
In 1996, strike-bound workers got wind that GM was planning to outsource work by moving tool and die equipment to another factory. In response, then-president of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, Buzz Hargrove, warned management they would “not get one goddamn die out of the city of Oshawa.”
He was right: workers stormed the gates, broke into the plant, and welded the doors shut to stop the parts leaving.
Two decades later, retail workers outnumber manufacturing in a city where good jobs dwindle. Oshawa’s unemployment rate sits at 9.8 per cent, compared to 5.6 per cent for the rest of the Ontario. Across the Greater Toronto Area, around half of all jobs are low-wage, temporary, contract, or lacking benefits.
Opening in 1907 as a manufacturing base for the Canadian McLaughlin Motor Car Company, both the plant and company were purchased by General Motors 11 years later.
The Oshawa plant closure comes as GM made the decision to cut 15 per cent of its workforce to save $6 billion (Dh20 billion) and adapt to “changing market conditions” — abandoning many of its car models to focus more on trucks, SUVs and electric vehicles.
According to Citi analyst Itay Michaeli, the auto giant is shedding cars largely because it doesn’t make money on them. “We estimate sedans operate at a significant loss, hence the need for classic restructuring,” he wrote in a note to investors.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feed my family,” Matt Smith, a worker at the Ontario factory, said. “It’s hard. It’s horrible.” Smith’s wife also works at the plant. The couple has an 11-month-old baby.
Just a few block east of the city’s downtown core sits the General Motor’s Arena, home to the Oshawa Generals. Both the rink and the team are synonymous with GM’s role at every level of this city.
“Oshawa is a city that has faced tough times before,” Roger Park tells the Weekend Review in a telephone interview. He worked on the assembly line in plant No 2, building pickup trucks for over a decade. And he lost that job in 1993.
“There was always a feeling that the work could only last for so long,” he says. “After [GM built] the Autoplex, it was boom times. Everything was about putting in the hours, calculating how many more hours you needed for a holiday. Sure, it was good money. Even in the downtimes, the province [of Ontario] and the [Canadian] government topped up Unemployed Benefits so that you earned 90 per cent of your wages if there was a stoppage or downtime for retooling [to update the assembly lines for new models].”
Like many GM retirees in the city and beyond, there are close friendships built over the hours spend bolting and building cars and trucks.
“We all knew this wouldn’t last, and the way the plant numbers have been cut showed that the writing was on the wall,” Park says.
And like many now, he’s hoping that the GM decision to close will be reversed.
“With all of this talk about climate change and pollution, someone has got to build electric and self-driving cars,” he says. “Oshawa has a long history of working with the Motors and I hope that the [assembly] lines are left in place for them to build the electrics.”
Neesha answers her phone at a Subway outlet just across Highway 401 from the sprawling grey GM complex that covers 780 hectares.
“We have many regular customers who come in every day after their shift timings,” she says. “It’s our rush time.” Now with those customers out of work, Neesha doesn’t know what will happen. “I shouldn’t be talking on the phone during my shift. Better you talk to my manager,” she says.
But for Eva McKeen, an inspector in the paint shop that looms over the north end of the vast manufacturing complex, the pain and the sense of betrayal at losing her job goes far beyond political and economic arguments.
“Just as you’re getting older to know that you don’t have a job, it’s really heart-wrenching,” she says. She was among the hundreds of workers who walked out of the plant in protest just before managers were about announce its close in late November. Outside, they began waving red flags while blockading the complex’s truck entrances. The ponchos they wore, bearing the logo of their union, Unifor, offered scant protection against the sleet coming down.
“The last thing we want to do is walk off the line, we really don’t want to do that,” McKeen said. “We just want GM to work with us.”
The largest car producer in Canada for long, GM lost that title to Toyota last year and will likely end up in the fourth or fifth position after the Oshawa closing. The overwhelming majority of the cars made in Canada are sent to American buyers.
The economic importance of the automotive industry to Canada meant that both the Ontario provincial and Canadian federal governments joined with Washington to bail out General Motors during its bankruptcy a decade ago. And preserving access to the United States auto market was one of Canada’s key objectives during the recent negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico.
“We’re sick and tired of General Motors shipping all of our jobs to Mexico,” Jerry Dias, Unifor’s president said. “We will do whatever it takes to get them to reverse their decision.”
Greig Mordue, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and the former general manager of Toyota’s manufacturing operations in Canada, said that Oshawa’s location ultimately doomed the factory.
Most of Canada’s other assembly plants, including a GM factory that will remain open, are west or north of the country’s largest city, Toronto, along highways providing direct and easy links to Michigan and Ohio. Oshawa sits on the other side of Toronto, along the infamously congested Highway 401 corridor.
“This is like a 100-year-old grandma dying,” Mordue says. “It’s sad but it is not surprising.”
–With inputs from agencies
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.