Jerry Dias is witty, pugnacious and media savvy.
But can the union boss really save General Motors’ century-old Oshawa, Ont., assembly plant and its nearly 3,000 jobs?
Don’t bet on it.
The Unifor president called off the union’s anti-GM advertising and publicity blitz this week, citing unspecified progress in talks with the car maker over the future of the plant, which is slated for closure at the end of the year.
“I am much more confident than I was a month ago that together we will find a resolution,” Mr. Dias said in a news release.
So far, Mr. Dias has tried just about every trick in the union playbook to get GM to change its mind, including walkouts, blockades and boycotts. In February, the union enraged the car maker with a controversial Super Bowl ad, calling the company un-Canadian and accusing it of shipping jobs to Mexico. And, he’s enlisted powerful friends in his cause, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British rocker Sting, who recently put on a special performance of songs from his musical The Last Ship for GM workers in the city last month.
“We’re not accepting your decision to close down the facility,” Mr. Dias keeps telling GM – or Greedy Motors, as he likes to call the company.
Both GM and Unifor are vague on what sort of resolution might now be under consideration. In a statement, the union acknowledged that GM is not backing down on halting the assembly of cars in Oshawa, but said “we are examining the potential to transform operations so as to maintain a base level of hourly employment.”
GM hasn’t offered anything publicly, beyond retraining laid-off workers and shifting many others to retirement.
Mr. Dias has done a terrific job of getting GM’s attention.
And he should be applauded for aggressively defending the rights of unionized workers at GM and its parts suppliers.
But, there are other things Mr. Dias likely knows he can’t change, including the slow and steady migration of vehicle assembly plants out of the country, and indeed, from states along the Canada-U.S. border. For nearly 20 years, the auto industry has been moving southward – to Mexico, but also to the southern U.S., where right-to-work laws discourage union membership and investment-hungry local governments are more willing to offer big tax breaks and subsidies.
Canada’s output of North America vehicles, along with its share of production, has been in decline since the 1990s – to 12 per cent from 17 per cent at the end of the last century. Since 2006, 16 new assembly plants have opened in North America, and only one of them is in Canada. GM’s unionized workforce in Oshawa has fallen to less than 3,000 from more than 15,000 in the mid-1990s.
Mr. Dias’s expensive public fight with GM isn’t just about auto workers. It’s a battle for the future of Unifor, which represents a rare breed of union members in Canada – private sector workers. Unifor has 315,000 members in sectors such as auto, energy and communications, including The Globe and Mail.
Overall, union membership among working-age adults in Canada has fallen below 30 per cent, from more than 40 per cent in the 1980s. And those numbers are heavily tilted toward the government sector, where unionization is still the norm. Just 14 per cent of private-sector workers in Canada are unionized.
Unfortunately for Mr. Dias, Canada’s future prosperity will depend less on assembling things, including cars and trucks. If we’re fortunate, our place in the auto industry will be in the electronics, software and artificial intelligence these vehicles contain.
Canada’s presence in those areas is still relatively small, but it’s growing. BlackBerry’s QNX division, which makes digital entertainment software used in tens of millions of vehicles, is expanding further into automated control systems, communications and driver assistance software. In February, the company announced plans to add 800 jobs in Ottawa as part of a $310-million investment in QNX. And even as it shrinks in Oshawa, GM is adding hundreds of jobs at its new research and development facility in Markham, Ont.
That should take some of the sting out of the job losses.
But it won’t help Mr. Dias because few, if any, are former assembly workers. And they’re unlikely to ever join a union.