The people of Oshawa have been making cars and trucks in this city for more than 100 years, but that long tradition came to an end yesterday. General Motors is ending automobile production here at what was, once, one of the largest auto manufacturing plants in the world.
The last pickup truck came down the assembly line as a small crowd gathered outside the plant on a frigid Wednesday morning to discuss what comes next and to fight for their future.
Roy Eagen teared up as a small group of workers, labour leaders and a politician gave speeches from the bed of a GMC pickup truck that was assembled just across the road. For the past nine years, Eagen worked inside the GM plant for supply chain company Ceva Logistics. On the morning of Dec. 18, he finished his last shift after working on the last truck down the line.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to take a couple of weeks off here and enjoy the holidays with family. Then I’ll bite the bullet and try to find something,” Eagen said.
In addition to those at GM, there are 1,700 workers at auto industry suppliers losing their jobs today, he added.
Automobile production in Oshawa began in 1907 when McLaughlin built 198 cars in partnership with Buick. The factory in Oshawa later made Chevrolets and General Motors vehicles after the two companies merged in 1918. Oshawa wasn’t even a city then; it didn’t earn that status officially until 1924.
During the 1940s, as part of the war effort, over 300,000 fighting vehicles were produced in Oshawa, according to Tiffany Balducci, president of the Durham Region Labor Council.
The 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air, 1963 Chevelle, 1965 Impala and 2010 Camaro were among the many millions of vehicles built at the General Motors Oshawa Assembly Plant since it was officially inaugurated 66 years ago in the winter of 1953. At its peak in the 1980s, the factory employed over 20,000 people.
Although he never worked at the factory, it made a big mark on Tyler Cairns’ life. Before his mother got a job there she was working two jobs, as a bartender and as a waitress. “We were struggling pretty bad,” Cairns said. When he was around 10 years old, she got hired at GM in the truck plant. “Pretty much after that my life went from being not so good, to good. You know, everything was good. Money was good. Mom was happy, family’s happy.”
He’s 27 now. “It meant the world to me,” he said.
At the Fox and The Goose, a sports bar across the street from the plant, a group of workers were having a drink after the end of their last shift.
“I’ve never experienced a job where your friends actually had your back like this,” said Teresa Hobbs over a plate of nachos with her now former-coworkers. She’s 54, a single mother of six. She’s planning to go to college to retrain as a personal support worker with funding from Ontario’s Second Career program.
The sheer scale of the GM factory is hard to imagine, but you must imagine it, because at 8 million square feet it’s simply too large to see all at once. From the corner of Park and Malaga Rd, the factory continues off into the distance.
“This used to be the jewel in the crown,” said Herman Rosenfeld, who is retired now but previously worked for the Canadian Auto Workers Union and at the GM factory in Scarborough before it was shut down in 1993.
He’s also part of Green Jobs Oshawa, a worker-led group which organized the speeches outside the factory. They’re campaigning to have the government take public ownership of the plant and repurpose it to create electric vehicles.
“The result would be in the public interest: better jobs, more jobs, and production that we need,” said Tony Leah, a 39-year GM veteran and chair of the political action committee of Unifor Local 222, which represents many of Oshawa’s autoworkers.
Leah said they’ve had “encouraging” talks about the proposal with members of parliament from other parties, but so far only the provincial NDP has issued any kind of support.
GM has other plans for the factory. The company has promised to build an autonomous vehicle test track and retain a parts supply and metal stamping operation in Oshawa, which will create 300 jobs, offsetting some of the 2,973 jobs affected by the closure.
GM is offering paid retraining programs, access to a job centre and the option for some employees to move to other plants. The company is also donating 87 acres of waterfront land to the city.
Jennifer French, New Democrat MPP for Oshawa, said people are angry that the provincial and federal governments have turned their backs on Oshawa. But she has hope for the future.
“Whether this facility builds the next green vehicle or whether it’s hoverboards or charging stations or anything – why can’t we look to this facility and see potential,” French said, speaking at the event.
The people in Oshawa we spoke to aren’t taking anything lying down. They are hopeful. They say Oshawa made GM, and so Oshawa can make something new again now too.
Andrea Bourke, a bartender at the Fox and The Goose, isn’t worried about her own job at the bar across from the factory. "In five years they’ll be building electric cars here,” she said. “Oh, I just know it. They just wanted to weed out all the high paying jobs.”
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