With the closure of GM Oshawa’s plant in the news and the protests that are happening, I would like to take this opportunity to bring some sobriety to this situation with my own first hand experience and perspective.
I was hired by General Motors in 2002 when they had to hire around 600 new employees for a new third shift at Oshawa’s truck plant. The third shift was necessary because the trucks were selling very well, due to the fact that Canadian built trucks were of great quality and the appeal of a rugged truck built in a rugged country by rugged but friendly hard working people was great to the kind of person who would buy a truck. Things were going great until 2008, when we knew that the Buick and Pontiac were going to be done and no new product was on the horizon. We knew the plant couldn’t survive on just the Impala and Monte Carlo, so when GM said there would be no new products for Oshawa unless we agreed to a shelf agreement with concessions, we all thought that was a pretty good idea, so we voted in favour for that, which, among other things, allowed GM to hire people on a temporary full time basis, created a two tier system where new employees would never make more than $25 per hour, and froze the wages of current employees. GM rewarded us with the Camaro, which the guys from Sainte-Thérèse referred to as the “Kiss of death,” as their plant was shut down shortly after they got the Camaro. This announcement came at a time shortly after the price of crude oil was peaking at $160 per barrel; gas prices were on their way up to prices never seen before, so the whole idea seemed like something thought up by a demented idiot. A week later, GM announced they were shutting down the truck plant and moving it to Mexico.
GM had negotiated in bad faith. Jobs were going to be lost, there would be no way Camaro production would replace two trucks, the Pontiac, and the Buick. The CAW protested and threatened General Motors with legal action, but eventually they settled out of court on a plan called Voluntary Termination of Employment Program, or VTEP (GM loves its acronyms). Anyone who volunteered to terminate employment with GM would get a $35,000 car voucher, cash, and the balance of their pension either left with GM or they could take it out and have their own financial institution manage it. The cash buyout was very generous; someone with only a year’s seniority would get around $35,000, and that amount went up with seniority, up until 10 years, where it levelled out close to $100,000. A person within 3 years of retiring could also get the new car voucher, but instead of a cash buyout, they would get paid to stay at home until they were eligible for their pension. To me, GM was saying there was no future for us younger guys in the plant, so here’s some money and a new car to give you a good start in whatever career you might choose. I was told we would never see anything like this again. I chose to leave GM to go into an electrical apprenticeship and joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
It turned out that the kind of people who buy trucks don’t like buying trucks that are made in Mexico, or anywhere else but the good old US of A, or Canada. Sales plummeted as anyone but a demented idiot would have predicted. GM scrambled to move truck operations to Fort Wayne, Texas, but could not get everything complete in time, and so they had to ship partially made trucks to Oshawa where they would be finished. I and other electricians from the IBEW were called in, along with other union trades, to get the line in and complete by a very aggressive deadline. We were working 10 hour days, 6-7 days a week to meet this deadline. The word from the very beginning was that this line was only going to stay in Oshawa for 18 months, after which it was going to be moved to Fort Wayne. The truth of this was reinforced with the fact that all of the equipment was designed to run on American 480 volts, so we had to put in step-down transformers to make it compatible with Canadian 600 volt power. When I went to the parts of the plant where I used to work, it was completely gutted. There was no way a plant that size was going to survive on the few Cadillacs and Impalas that were rolling along a single line; things were definitely winding down.
So, why did General Motors want to shut down operations in Oshawa? It’s not the workers or the union; they are very hard working, and there’s not many of them left, and those that are still there are underpaid for the work they do as many fall under the lower pay scale of the shelf agreement, and the 10+ year freeze has let inflation eat away at the income of those senior workers in the higher tier. It’s not because the plant is outdated; we put in the latest manufacturing equipment in that new truck line in 2017. The most accurate reason I’ve heard was that GM felt they were spending too much money on electricity. They have a direct line to the Pickering nuclear power station, and use a tremendous amount of electricity. I had heard that they wanted to start their own co-gen power station in Oshawa, but their application was denied, and the cuts and closures started. This is reinforced by the fact that they are going ahead with a 6.4 megawatt co-generation plant in St. Catherine’s, which they have no plans on closing. I think we don’t hear much about this reason because OPG is a sacred cow in this part of the country, but we really ought to have this conversation because the workers losing their jobs deserve a lot more respect than they’ve been getting, and GM, for all their bad moves and decisions, can’t be expected to continue to pay a premium for some of the most expensive electricity in the world.