Don’t look for any fairness from GM toward workers


Hamilton [Ontario, Canada] Spectator: Where is the fairness? By its own measuring standards, General Motors’ plant in Oshawa is among the most efficient anywhere. The workforce has demonstrated flexibility, weathering ups and downs in production and staffing. In the last set of negotiations between Unifor [labor union] and the company, assurances were given about the future.

But sadly, the ultimate answer to the fairness question is short and bleak: There is none. Not for 2,500-plus workers at the plant. Not for their families. Not for the yet unknown number of people who work in the automotive industry’s integrated supply chain.

As things stand now, there will be no vehicles manufactured after the end of December next year.

Now, let’s reality check. None of what follows is intended to downplay the real pain and trauma workers and their families will endure over the next year. But some things need to be said.

This is a shock, but it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise.

GM employed more than 20,000 in Oshawa through the 1980s. The workforce has diminished steadily. Industry observers, including those who worry about pension sustainability, have been warning about this for years.

And the brutal truth is, there is little or nothing the federal or provincial governments can do. Premier Doug Ford has said the company told him the decision is final, and would not change even with incentive offers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is open to discussions, but it seems unlikely serious incentives are on the table. Nor should they be.

GM and other car companies received billions of dollars during their near-collapse in the 2008 recession. GM got the lion’s share, but it wasn’t enough to guarantee jobs when it came time for the company to significantly restructure.

DON’T BLAME TRUMP

It’s tempting to find a way to blame U.S. President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again complex for this, but that doesn’t really hold water. Four of the operations slated to close are American, one is Canadian and one is in South Korea. As bad as the Oshawa job losses are, they pale compared to the numbers overall – 8,000 salaried workers and 6,000 hourly workers will either lose their jobs or be reassigned to other plants. The company offered voluntary buyouts for 18,000 salaried workers last month.

GM says this restructuring is necessary for it to remain competitive. We can disagree as violently as we want, but this is the company’s call, no one else’s.

Provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has accused Doug Ford of “throwing in the towel.” She says he and the federal government need to get GM into a room and “convince” them to replace Oshawa’s conventional fleet with electric and green vehicles. Yes, they should, but brass knuckles aren’t an option. Maybe GM is willing to negotiate, maybe not.

Certainly both levels of government should try. But given the company’s credit history in Canada, it would be unwise to give away the entire farm.

The auto sector, like many others, is changing. Auto economists have been warning about other industry players struggling to transform. Ford Motor Co. is among them. It’s unlikely GM will be the last automaker to shake up the sector.

Ottawa and Ontario should do what they can. But they should also focus more on education, retraining and helping workers transition. Governments can’t stop this sort of seismic event, but they can prepare, adjust and invest to mitigate the damage. That should be their main focus.

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