TORONTO — The latest battle to save thousands of auto jobs in Ontario is but one of many Canada’s largest private sector union will likely have to fight as automation, technology and globalization increasingly change the face of manufacturing, experts say.
The decline of the sector — and the resulting job losses — started long before General Motors announced its plan to shutter its assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont., — and four other facilities south of the border — as part of global restructuring that will see the company focus on autonomous and electric vehicles.
“This trend has been happening for the last 20 years,” said Anil Verma, an industrial relations professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s not a huge surprise. Of course, it doesn’t reduce the hurt and the damage. But if I were in the auto industry in any capacity I would be wanting to look for an exit strategy.”
According to Statistics Canada, the country’s manufacturing sector lost 278,000 jobs between 2000 and 2007. That accelerated during the recession, with an additional 188,000 auto jobs disappearing between 2008 and 2009 — most of them in Quebec and Ontario.
Unifor, the union representing the GM autoworkers in Oshawa, has launched an aggressive campaign to force the company to reverse its decision. Union president Jerry Dias said he doesn’t understand why GM can’t build autonomous and electric vehicles in Canada.
“They’re not talking about transforming from cars to spaceships,” he said. “It’s still a car. It’s the exact same car. It’s just got different technology inside of it.”
Dias has called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to work with U.S. President Donald Trump to ensure the five GM plants slated to be closed in December 2019 remain open — even consider imposing tariffs on GM cars manufactured in Mexico and sold in the U.S. and Canada.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford accused the union leader — and others who have publicly criticized GM, including Trudeau and Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath — of making empty promises.
“When we hear any of these people talking, all we hear is a bunch of powerful people grandstanding, selling false hope,” he said Wednesday. “In private, they know the GM plant isn’t coming back.”
The looming plant closure has put Unifor in a very difficult situation, said Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University. In successive rounds of bargaining, she said, the union has accepted concessions which have not always been popular within its members.
By cutting the jobs in spite of those concessions, the company has pushed the union into a space where it has no choice but to flex its muscles, she said. Unifor president Jerry Dias was already raising the possibility of massive walkouts at all GM plants in North America as he met Wednesday with the head of the United Auto Workers in Washington, D.C.
“If people can’t have their interests met by playing by the rules they’re going to start questioning whether those rules are actually fair and find other forms of action to pressure those who have power,” Ross said.
The conflict between GM and Unifor has larger implications for the broader labour movement, and the stakes are high for even non-unionized workers, who also benefit from higher wage agreements, she said.
“The Unifor leadership are very aware, as are all labour leaders, that the labour movement is in the fight for its life,” Ross said. “When the labour movement’s on the ropes it means serious economic and social harms, not just for union members but for all workers and for our communities,” she said.
Verma said the trend is not encouraging for autoworkers as other car companies could follow suit, shifting production to emerging markets such as China, Mexico and India where product demand is increasing and labour costs are low.
“The exit strategy for labour is to negotiate a good deal,” he said. “To buy time, that’s one thing the union can do. I heard the president of Unifor thundering that he won’t go down without a fight, but what are we fighting for? I think we’re fighting for a peaceful and orderly transition and to take care of people.”
Both the federal and provincial governments have said they’re looking at ways to help the affected autoworkers in Oshawa.
Unions can take an active role in encouraging retraining of younger workers to help ready them for the increasingly technological knowledge required for work on new products or retraining so they can focus on a completely new career, said Verma.
The situation is more difficult for older or less skilled workers, he said. When they lose their jobs they are eventually absorbed into Ontario’s job market in new roles that don’t pay as well as their job in manufacturing did.
“People suffer through stress and anxiety and families get disrupted,” Verma said. “You have to accept lower pay and do something else. No one can just recreate the magic of what Oshawa was in the 1980s.”
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press