Carl Dillman had heard a few rumours about the future of Oshawa’s General Motors plan in the last while – maybe he and his colleagues would be building a new truck, or maybe the Chevrolet Cruze. He wasn’t exactly prepared to hear the plant would shut down.
After a rash of media reports on Sunday evening, GM confirmed to its more than 2,500 Oshawa plant employees on Monday morning that after more than 100 years in the community, it would cease production there by the end of 2019. Mr. Dillman, a lift-truck driver at the car plant, was left in shock.
“I didn’t really think it was going to happen,” he told The Globe and Mail at a union meeting on Monday at the headquarters of Unifor Local 222, a short drive from the plant. Hundreds of people had just streamed into the room, some soaked from standing in the cold November rain blocking vehicles from entering or exiting the plant. Mr. Dillman has been at the plant for 37 years. “I wanted to go another three years – make it an even 40,” he said. “… It’s going to be tough. I’m just hoping I don’t have to sell my house.”
At the meeting, Unifor national president Jerry Dias, local president Colin James and plant chairperson Greg Moffatt said they would push GM to honour the local’s latest collective agreement, which Mr. Dias said guaranteed production through September, 2020. In a heated, sometimes profanity-laced speech, he said he’d be meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office this week, had spoken with GM’s mid-level management and had requested an immediate meeting with its chief executive, Mary Barra.
"We’re going to have a very straightforward discussion with them on what needs to be done,” Mr. Dias told the crowd. “This is a shame. And it is a crime. And it is a betrayal. And we’re not going to accept their decision, not one iota. The only decision that we’re going to accept is … that we are going to be building trucks, and our plant was going to be staying open for the life of the agreement. That’s the only decision that we’re going to accept here today.”
The Oshawa plant builds the Chevrolet Impala, Cadillac XTS, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. Local Unifor members walked off the job a few hours into Monday morning’s shift, but Mr. Moffatt encouraged workers to take a different tack when the day was over – by showing the value of their work. Tuesday, he said, “you’re going to build the highest-quality trucks and cars in the industry.”
The plant’s closing would ripple through thousands of families – not just GM workers, but at feeder plants and local businesses within and beyond Oshawa. But it will hurt the most for those who have a deep history assembling vehicles for GM in Oshawa – such as Stephanie Nickle, 24, who builds dashes for trucks at the plant, and her mother, Laurie Nickle, 47.
“At least I’m young, and I can hopefully go back to school, but my mother works here,” Stephanie said as the Unifor meeting wrapped up, turning to Laurie. “How’s that going to affect my father and my mother and us down the line?”
“What job am I going to find at my age?” asked Laurie, who builds truck motors. “I have no experience. I’ve been building cars for 20 years. What am I going to do?”
Earlier Monday morning, the first of the plant’s engineers, machinists and other auto workers who arrived for the day had only heard rumblings of the plant’s potential closing as they flipped on the news or called one another. The Globe and other media outlets reported on Sunday evening that GM would shutter the plant amid a restructuring of its global operations to focus on autonomous and zero-emission vehicles.
Craig Laing found out when he turned on the radio during his drive to his truck-making job and prayed that he would be spared because he’d only heard the car plant would go. “That’s pretty major, the car plant going,” he said before punching in just after 6 a.m. “I’m hoping that keeps my job.”
He would not be so lucky. A few hours later, after many employees began to walk out, GM officials gave plant employees information sheets, signed by Mike Trevorrow, its executive director of North American manufacturing and labour relations, confirming the whole plant would wind down by late 2019, trucks and all. Several U.S. plants would close soon as well.
The company had done “several studies to consider options for Oshawa Assembly,” but said that shifts in car-buying patterns, changes to the GM product lineup and the plant’s “under-utilization” prompted it to not allocate new products to be made there past the end of 2019.
Tool-and-die maker Eugen Weber has been at the plant for 38 years. “It’s a slap in the face to the work force here,” he said on his way into the plant. “This work force has bent over backwards to give the company what they wanted all along.” He suspected for years that this would happen, recalling a 2012 Institute for Research on Public Policy paper that suggested the auto-industry bailout after the financial crisis would only delay, but not prevent, a shutdown of GM and Chrysler’s Canadian operations by 2015.
“It went along a little longer,” Mr. Weber said, but “I think that’s pretty much what’s happened here.”
The plant was saved from imminent closing in 2016 by a GM plan to invest $400-million to upgrade an assembly line. Unifor said at the time the investment dispelled fears the factory would close in 2019.
But Mr. Weber said that the refurbishment wasn’t entirely practical. “They’re bringing [truck] bodies from Fort Wayne, Indiana, all the way up here to be finished, processed, put back together again and sent back to the States to be sold.”