When I first moved to Southern Ontario, I taught in Durham Region. During my time working in that area, I got to know the region well but also what makes the area go. Coming from a city that was built around forestry, I knew the feeling of being in a place that had such importance built in one major employer. So, when I worked in Durham Region, seeing General Motors and its importance there made sense and felt very familiar. That made it all the more understandable how people felt and reacted when some awful news came in late November:
The closure of that facility is something that would be devastating and could be a harbinger for further bad news for the Canadian auto sector down the road. Any move that ends with the loss of 2,500 jobs is bad, and that it could be a sign of worse to come would be that much worse. So that’s why, at the time of the announcement, the reactions from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford were so striking in their hopelessness. Both leaders at the time basically threw up their hands, saying that while they didn’t agree with this decision from GM, that there was nothing that could be done. This was the world that we are now living in and there was no way to reverse that decision.
Of course, that response didn’t sit well with the workers at GM or the union representing them, UNIFOR. Instead of giving up completely, UNIFOR and the workers decided to go on the offensive. They protested in Toronto and across the river from GM’s headquarters in Detroit. They actively pushed for the boycott of GM vehicles purchased outside of Canada. They even went so far as to put out an attack ad against GM and paid to run it during the Super Bowl. Remember this?
All along people were saying that this was all fruitless and that there was nothing could be done. But that pressure built on GM, and built, and built. It built to the point that we saw a big joint announcement today by both General Motors and UNIFOR:
Everyone, when people deride the value of unions and organized labour, point to this right here as an example of why they are so important. It’s not perfect, and even Jerry Dias himself pointed that he’s not happy about the end result, but this is a start. The fact is that GM was going to walk away, leaving 2,500 people and families hurt. But through hard work, determination and negotiation, UNIFOR was able to ensure that GM has some kind of future in Oshawa. 300 jobs are just a start, and when you look at investments into autonomous vehicle testing and such, this deal offers a brighter future than the one that workers in Oshawa saw in November. That’s making the best of a very bad situation, and leaving the opportunity to make it even better in the future.
But the biggest lesson here is to see who was at this announcement today, or more precisely, who wasn’t. Neither the Trudeau Liberals, nor the Ford Conservatives were anywhere to be seen. They left the field and left the fight for UNIFOR to fight alone. They gave up and tried to get those people in Oshawa to be prepared to accept less. They weren’t willing to take on this powerful company and decided that they weren’t going to put their political capital on the line. This was a time to fight for Oshawa and Canada’s auto sector, and they did the opposite.
So, the good people at UNIFOR deserve all the kudos for their hard work and for taking risks to save as many jobs as they could now, while ensuring that there will be more and a future for GM in Oshawa in the future. This is their win and their deal that they earned, all without any thanks or help from either level of government. This is why unions are so important everyone and if a strong union like UNIFOR wasn’t there, all those jobs would be gone, for today and forever. Hopefully the next time we see a large employer trying to do the same, we’ll see the federal and provincial governments actually join organized labour in that fight to make the best out of a bad situation, rather than sit on the sideline, throwing up their hands and throwing in the towel.