It might not feel like a big deal to many, but the closing of GM Oshawa after a century of manufacturing cars in the town is a significant psychological blow to the community.
The economic impact of losing GM in Oshawa has somewhat been dissipated as there has been a gradual ramping down of assembly there for a number of years. That’s little comfort for the approximately 3,000 people whose jobs are going poof! in the latest wave of automobile production cessation in Ontario.
Recent studies also suggest the economic impact may be as much as 24,000 lost jobs given how integrated auto assembly is to the local economy.
The plant has existed since 1907. Recently their products included vehicles sold as Buicks, Chevys, GMC trucks, and Cadillacs.
And the factory built them well. Within GM, which itself is building some of the best cars, quality-wise, available in the North American market, the Oshawa plant stands out as the best over the past couple of decades.
So why is this happening? Well, the Canadian POV is that after the government put in a good deal of money during the 2008 melt-down, helping to save General Motors, the Americans are now cutting Canadian production off to save US jobs. That’s just what’s in the air. The facts are that some of the vehicle production will go to the US. Some is already in Mexico, where models that this GM plant could build are presently being assembled.
Many Canadian consumers are planning a boycott of GM vehicles to get the company to change its mind. The country’s feelings are on display at www.saveOshawaGM.ca, which is headlined, “Canadians bailed out GM. Now GM is betraying us.” On the site are numerous articles and studies. Plus, a chance to order a “Save Oshawa GM” t-shirt.
Like with any such endeavor, many follow-on jobs were created and have also slowly disappeared. After all, who made things like seat assemblies? Local companies. My recollection is that the place where Oshawa’s Costco now sits was once a battery factory. Maybe it was radiators. Anyway, it was integral to the car-job culture which once defined the town and provided good jobs that, in the past, were lifetime commitments on both the worker’s part and the company’s.
Part of my growing up was done in Peterborough, maybe an hour north. I remember one night before I refereed a hockey game talking to someone in the Refs’ Room, and asking what he intended to do after high school. “The Motors,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant. “I’ll go to GM,” he explained. “My dad and a cousin are already working there.” He planned to commute on a van for his shift like they did. He’s probably retired from there now, or long laid off. That’s not the point—it’s that this was a lifestyle, a life, for many. And now that’s gone.
The company was once so embedded into the town east of Toronto that the local OHL Major Junior league hockey team (one level below the NHL for the best young players) has been called the “Generals” for most of a century, and particularly since their rebirth in 1962.
Players as great as Bobby Orr, Boston’s defensive phenom from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, once played for the “Gennies,” who have won five Memorial Cups as the best Junior team in Canada. (Some of the Junior teams are in the US now, note.) They last won it in 2015. The images of Orr are still all around the General Motors Centre, or what is now the renamed Tribute Communities Centre (since 2016). And just to put it out there, recent Generals graduates to the NHL include John Tavares, late of the Islanders and now with Toronto.
That name, Tribute, by the way, is telling. Tribute is the company busy turning farmland into houses for Torontonians who can’t afford a place of their own in the City. Most endure an LA-bad commute now. Getting downtown, in particular, is an hour and a half on a good morning. In the snow, forget it. Many people take the GO train as an alternative. But that’s where the work is, and even more so with this late-2018 announcement that GM won’t be building cars in Oshawa any more.
The area surrounding and including Oshawa now has become officially part of the “GTA”: Greater Toronto Area. Visiting downtown Oshawa, it doesn’t look like it’s been absorbed into something bigger. There’s still not much there. But the mall is much nicer than it used to be, if that’s a sign of greater connection and, to a small degree, more affluence. Maybe not being a factory town any longer has done something for the sophistication of the place. But it’s also left a huge hole.
GM is pledging to help control the damage by working with displaced workers, spending between $5,000-10,000 per person to retrain them. The local college, Durham College, is helping in the effort to connect people with jobs.
The local newspaper quoted the Unifor (union representing the workers) boss as saying, “You want to talk about incredible arrogance[.] They should stick with the business of building vehicles instead of being an employment agency.”
Driving around Oshawa over the Christmas holiday, I saw signs like the one pictured that about saving this last sliver of GM. Not likely to happen, though the union is to be credited for trying. More likely what will happen is people will take retirement deals (according to newspaper reports, about half are eligible for that). Others will transfer to other GM sites. Still more will simply have to realize that the living that sustained generations of loyal assembly workers and kept their mortgages paid is just no more.
Go to www.saveOshawaGM.ca (not .com) to keep up to date on news and the campaign workers and the union are waging.