It’s been almost a year since General Motors announced that it would be closing its Oshawa, Ontario automobile assembly plant, ending over a century of car manufacturing in the city and putting nearly 3,000 employees and management out of work. This spring, however, the company announced that it would reinvest $170 million dollars in the plant, converting it to stamping and sub-assembly and building a test track for autonomous vehicles.
This would save just a tenth of the jobs that are being lost at the end of this year – a small victory, to be sure. GM and making cars might not be disappearing from Oshawa, but the industry – crucial in the history of the last century and the story of America’s economic ascendancy – is receding quickly as an economic powerhouse.
Walking around the perimeter of the Oshawa plant, it’s hard not to be amazed at the scale of GM, even in its twilight. The vast manufacturing buildings, the parking lots full of new Impalas and Silverado trucks, the long bridges spanning Park and Stevenson Roads – even after consolidation and demolition of redundant parts of the plant it’s an impressive sight, though millions of square feet of shop floor are vacant and unused.
The future of GM Oshawa is probably glimpsed at the corner of Park Road and Phillip Murray Avenue just by Lake Ontario, where a corner of the plant has been skillfully landscaped with low rolling hills to provide a pleasant view for the residential subdevelopments there, some built in the plant’s heyday, some under construction (and on the market at prices starting at half a million dollars.) The autonomous vehicle test track being proposed for the site will be built behind this carefully tended green space. If there’s a positive story going forward for what’s left of GM and its vast footprint in Oshawa, I’m sure everyone living there hopes it looks like this.
The biggest loser in all of this, after the two thousand or so GM employees without jobs this Christmas, is Unifor, the union that represents them. Even after uncountable hours of negotiation, repeated promises about the viability of General Motors in Canada and millions of dollars in incentives, bailouts and tax breaks from all levels of government, Unifor couldn’t prevent its members from losing their jobs.
Decades of decline in the U.S. automobile industry – to which Canada’s auto plants are intimately connected – has created a considerable literature about plant closures and the social and personal effects of de-industrialization. One of the best is Paul Clemens’ Punching Out, published in 2011, after the last major crisis in the American economy pushed the auto industry to the brink.
Clemens’ book documents the dismantling of the Budd stamping plant in Detroit after its closure in 2006. He spent a forlorn year in the plant while its contents were auctioned off and teams of workers dismantled its massive metal presses for shipment to new owners. One of those new owners was in Mexico, and put their newly acquired machines to use stamping parts for Chrysler. Visiting the new home of Budd’s machines, Clemens can’t help but reflect on the curious economy and logistics of the modern auto industry:
“The largest press line in a closed Detroit parts plant – a plant that had sat sandwiched between Chrysler’s Mack Avenue Engine plants and its Jefferson North Assembly Plant – 16-line had been moved two thousand miles south to stamp parts for Chrysler.”
Along the way, Clemens explores the relationship of the working people he encounters with labour unions. “Pro-union and anti-union members of the working class can be as difficult to distinguish, for those who haven’t made a study of the schism, as Shia and Sunni. Unless there’s an obvious giveaway – a UAW jacket or, as in Duane’s case, a t-shirt that said ‘Proud to Be Union Free’ – there’s typically no outward tell. They live in the same neighbourhoods, go to the same churches, share similar conceptions of the good life.”
“Many people unconvinced that unions are an unqualified plus still drive American cars, since love of country trumps any competing dislike. Such folks are often called Reagan Democrats, a term that would make more descriptive since if they hadn’t also been Bush Democrats, Dole Democrats, Bush II Democrats, and, later, McCain Democrats, by which point it’s easier and more accurate to call them what they are, which is Republicans.”
Talking to a long distance trucker hired to move parts scavenged from the Budd plant to their new owners – part of an industry that’s grown with the increase in scavenging the remains of heavy industry – Clemens name checks GM Oshawa, and encounters a complaint I’ve heard many times myself, starting with my childhood in a working class Toronto neighbourhood:
“I want nothing to do with a union,” he went on. “I don’t want somebody regulating my life. My family relies on my paycheck entirely too much. I delivered a load one time up to General Motors, up in Ontario. Backed onto the door, sat on the door for four hours watching the forklift operator collect his paycheck – sitting there for four hours – because he was not allowed by union rules to put the dock plate in place. Now, a nonunion shop, he’d a put the dock plate in there, unloaded the truck. I’d a been out of there in half an hour. It’s ridiculous.”
Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Storychronicles the story of the 2009 GM plant closure in Janesville, Wisconsin. The story begins with the first rumours that the plant is closing, through the desperate efforts of the union and the town to keep it going, through the grim stories of former employees struggling to cope with job retraining and post-industrial life and the handful of workers who commute hours away from home to new jobs in GM plants in other states every week.
Goldstein’s book hammers home the truth that massive job losses in large plants and single industry towns don’t just affect local economies or the GDP but families. “By this morning,” Goldstein writes about one soon-to-be-ex-GM employee, “Jerad has been a GM’er for 13 years and six days. During this time, he has worked all over the plant – the medium-duty truck line while it lasted and, since then, on the SUV. And the truth is, each of the stations he has worked along the assembly line has bored him.”
“Yet no other jobs in town match $28 an hour, and most of the years, until SUV sales slowed, have come with ten sweet hours a week of time-and-a-half overtime. His father and his father-in-law hated their thirty years at the plant before they retired on good GM pensions, so, as he approaches his own middle age, Jerad figures that, if they could stick it out, he can, too. At least, working first shift, he is home for dinner with Tammy and their three kids. Family is everything.”
The story reaches its heartbreaking apex with the suicide of a woman whose life had fallen apart despite being considered a star product of the town’s job retraining scheme. Goldstein records the reaction of the man in charge of the program: “Over at the Job Center, Bob Borremans is shocked when word reaches him that a client has killed herself. Not just any client but one the center singled out in its publicity as a success story. This makes Bob think hard about a fact that he already knows: It isn’t simple to take someone with a high school degree and a factory job and help lead them into new work.”
One of the classics of auto plant literature is Ben Hamper’s 1992 book Rivethead: Tales From The Assembly Line. Hamper was made famous by filmmaker Michael Moore, who featured him in Roger & Me, the 1989 documentary that comprises most of what too many people think they know about the decline of the US auto industry. (Moore wrote the foreword for Rivethead.)
In Roger & Me, Hamper recounted one of the panic attacks that he used to have working on the line at GM in Detroit. Written in a “gonzo” style obviously indebted to legendary outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Rivetheadis, among other things, a catalogue of the bad behaviour and social dysfunction that Hamper and his colleagues lived out on the factory floor, during what we know now (and probably not coincidentally) was a low point for workmanship and quality control in the American auto industry.
Early in the book, Hamper recalls his probationary period after finally landing a coveted spot on the GM line, and a fellow worker’s attempt to game the union system. “The one thing that was impossible to escape was the monotony of our new jobs. Every minute, ever hour, every truck and every movement was a plodding replica of the one that had gone before. The monotony gnawed away at Roy. His behaviour began to verge on the desperate. The only way he saw to deal with the monotony was to numb himself to it. When the lunch horn sounded, we’d race out to his pickup and Roy would pull these enormous joints from the glove box. ‘Take one,’ he’d offer. Pot made me nervous so I would stick to the beer from his well-stocked cooler or slug a little of the whiskey that was always on hand.”
Roy is intent on lasting out his probationary period long enough to take advantage of the union’s disability plans. “Once he reached his ninety days’ seniority, he would round up a reliable quack, feign some mystery injury (spinal aggravations were the most popular malady) and, with all the paperwork, semiretire to an orbit of singles bars, dope dens and sick pay benefits.”
Stories like this had become the lore and legend of the auto industry by the ‘80s, and I heard ones just like them all the time, from various other industries, growing up in working class west end Toronto. My friends’ fathers complained about their bosses and their foreman, but their particular hatred was reserved for shop stewards and the union executive, whose motives they distrusted as much, if not more.
Industrial relations were toxic when the National Film Board produced Final Offer, a documentary film about the 1984 strike at GM Canada’s plants that ended up forcing the Canadian arm of the United Auto Workers to break away and form its own independent union. (The Canadian Auot Workers, which voted to merge with another union and became Unifor in 2013.)
The film is an incredible time machine, replete with thick Ontarian accents you don’t hear much anymore, and foul-mouthed union execs unacquainted with media training classes or the ministrations of PR handlers. It’s also a document of a pivotal time in the history of GM Oshawa, as the writing was already on the wall.
During the course of bitter negotiations, the head of the Canadian union says that GM has threatened the closure of a diesel plant and an assembly plant outside Montreal. (They would be respectively be sold or closed, in 2000 and 2002.) The most bitter moments are filmed when the union executives are confronted by elected representatives of the workers, who are willing to rebel if they’re denied the guaranteed cost of living raises they’ve come to expect over the decades of the industry’s postwar boom.
Workers go on wildcat strikes, harass female staff entering the plant and vandalize property, jeopardizing the public image of put-upon working stiffs so crucial to the union’s strategy. It’s a chapter in the long story of a rear-guard action; in hindsight it’s easy to see where this was going, and the fate of GM Oshawa in 2019 isn’t at all surprising by the time the credits roll on Final Offer.
There were 23,000 workers employed at GM Oshawa the year before Final Offerwas made, so it was hard to imagine that the Canadian auto industry could sink so nearly out of sight one day. You’d need to have a heart of stone not to empathize with the families who will suffer when the final paycheques go out at the end of this year, joining the thousands who have been through this in the intervening quarter century.
The men and women losing their jobs obviously felt that enduring tedium and monotony was a price to pay if the wages were right, but those days are over and we’ve exported their jobs overseas, to places where the cost of endurance is obviously much lower. Back when the idea of unions was a new and radical one, people used to talk about the “dignity of labour.” What no one talked about was how dignity had a price, and that a price is an invitation to bargain. The existence of someone, somewhere willing to beat your price is the ugly secret labour unions tragically insist on ignoring.