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Sid Ryan is the former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, the former president of CUPE Ontario, and the former general vice-president of CUPE National. His memoir, A Grander Vision: My Life in the Labour Movement, will be published next April.

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Laurie Nickle, left, and her daughter Stephanie, attend a meeting at the Unifor union office to discuss the impending General Motors assembly plant closures in Oshawa, Ont., on Nov. 26 2018.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In March of 1980, I moved to Oshawa from Kincardine with my wife and daughter; I was 28 years old and looking forward to integrating myself into the community. Later that spring, I began training with the Oshawa United soccer club. Right away, I was struck by the number of players on the team who worked for General Motors – or “Generous Motors,” as they fondly referred to the company. I soon came to realize that there was a special bond and a genuine sense of pride among GM employees, and that in many cases, the bonds between company and worker stretched back generations. In its heyday, in the early 1980s, GM employed roughly 23,000 workers. There was not a facet of life in Oshawa – from sports (the Ontario Hockey League team is called the “Generals”) to the art gallery to health care that was not touched, in some way, by GM.

Years later, when I ran for the NDP in provincial and federal elections, I knocked on thousands of doors in Oshawa and was delightfully regaled by numerous old-timers – long retired – who still spoke with pride and reverence about the company and the cars they helped build. General Motors touched the heart and soul of practically every family in Oshawa at one time or another, and those families gave back to the company tenfold.

And so, it became very personal – not just business – on Monday when GM announced that it would not be allocating a new product for the 65-year-old plant beyond 2019. The company’s decision to toss 2,500 Oshawa workers onto the scrap heap of unemployment rolls in 2019 has sparked a fierce backlash from workers, the community and politicians of all stripes.

The overwhelming sentiment of the workers was a bitter sense of betrayal, especially since the Oshawa assembly plant was considered one of the most effective and efficient car plants in North and South America and won numerous awards. The initial response from the workers on Monday morning was to put down tools and walk off the job. Later in the day, a defiant Unifor president Jerry Dias said GM was “not closing our damn plant without one hell of a fight.” The members responded with a roar of approval.

It appears that fight will be waged without any meaningful support from either level of government; Premier Doug Ford has already tossed in the towel, it seems, after GM told him there was nothing the province could do to save the plant. So much for those highway signs proclaiming Ontario is open for business. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered up little more than platitudes about helping workers “get back on their feet.” This comes not long after his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, proclaimed in an op-ed that the recently renegotiated USMCA was "good news for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who work in the auto industry.” Those words ring hollow today for thousands of Oshawa families.

But I would not count this union out just yet. The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) – the forerunner union to Unifor – faced a similar battle with GM in 2008 when the company reneged on language in the collective agreement that committed GM to keeping the truck plant open for the lifetime of the agreement. Within weeks of inking the deal, GM announced the closing of the plant. The workers were outraged and mounted a 12-day blockade of GM’s Oshawa headquarters. I was proud to stand with the workers during that blockade in my capacity as president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario. A Whitby judge ordered an end to the action but not before castigating GM for engaging in an “almost deceitful business practice.” The union used the ruling to negotiate lucrative severance packages and additional product for the car assembly plant designed to take care of the workers who were not eligible for buyouts or enhanced pension packages. The language in the current collective agreement is similar to that of 2008. This fight is far from over.

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General Motors workers gather at the Unifor union office.Fred Lum

However, the one big difference between this latest announcement and the one that closed the truck plant in 2008 is that the world is moving away from the internal-combustion engine and into zero-emission electric cars. The world better understands what is happening to our environment, and the importance of pivoting toward electric vehicles.

In a very callous way, General Motors has actually highlighted, for all the world to see, the folly of politicians – and in some cases union leaders – who collectively refuse to grasp the serious consequences of climate change and its impact on jobs of the future. GM made what one might consider a heartless business decision, but it’s one that signals the future of the entire North American auto industry. Make no mistake about it – Ford and Fiat Chrysler will have no choice but to move in the same direction. It is no wonder that GM Canada brushed aside the Ontario Premier’s offer of help. The future is here.

But what of the future for those affected by the plant’s closing? Both Mr. Ford and Mr. Trudeau have offered some unstated form of additional training assistance for the workers who may lose their jobs. However, the type of assistance and retraining available under current federal and provincial programs is totally inadequate and can only be accessed after an extensive months-long job search. Both levels of government have gotten out of training/retraining programs and off-loaded their responsibility onto 400 community-based organisations such as the Durham Region Unemployment Help Centre. According to the centre’s executive director, Maralyn Tassone, “the area is already experiencing a 16.9% unemployment rate for young workers.” Young workers are expected to make up the bulk of laid-off workers if GM closes.

What is needed in Canada is a complete overhaul of the system that combines unemployment insurance and the annual subsidies that are given to profitable corporations so as to adequately train and retrain workers who are losing their jobs. According to a paper by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, Canadian businesses receive a whopping $29-billion in taxpayer subsidies every year from the federal government and four provinces. During the 2008 financial crisis, GM and Fiat Chrysler received more than $10-billion in loans and writeoffs of which the government did not recoup approximately $4-billion.

Clearly, there is no shortage of tax payer subsidies available for profitable corporations, but only paltry resources are set aside for workers who lose their jobs to corporate restructuring. In Denmark, they have a program – a joint venture between government and employers – called Flexicurity, where laid-off workers receive up to two years of retraining at 90 per cent of their previous salary. By diverting just 10 per cent of the annual corporate welfare to organizations such as the Durham Region Unemployment Help Centre, we could easily put in place an unemployment model that mirrors the Danish project and provides a soft landing for laid-off workers. We are entering a period of great uncertainty where AI will displace millions of workers in transportation fields across North America with autonomous trucks, taxis, buses and trains. The job losses in most sectors of the economy will be horrendous. A Danish model of retraining for the unemployed will be an imperative if we want to avoid civil unrest.

Oshawa has dramatically changed from the days when thousands upon thousands of GM workers were pumping out one million cars a year on the assembly lines. The city was forced to diversify the economy as, over the years, the GM work force became a shadow of its former self. Today, the city has reinvented itself as a health-sciences and education hub boasting multiple postsecondary institutions. However, the closing of the plant will be a major hit to the local economy – especially given the importance of spinoff jobs in the feeder plants and small businesses. What cannot be overlooked is the devastating human costs of men and women losing their livelihoods.

General Motors has created one hell of a political and public-relations disaster for itself by announcing the closing of five plants in North America at a time when it has posted billions of profit for the year, and after Canadian and American taxpayers contributed billions of dollars into corporate coffers to stave off bankruptcy not quite a decade ago. It will be a shame if the dedicated and highly skilled workers in Oshawa have to do battle with a corporation and an industry they have nurtured and fiercely defended for the past century.

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