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Chrysler Group assembly staff works on the engine of a 2014 Dodge Ram pickup truck at the Warren Assembly Plant in Warren, Michigan December 11, 2013.

REBECCA COOK/REUTERS

The mayors of Ontario cities that depend on the auto industry have weighed in on the provincial election campaign, urging the three party leaders to adopt policies that will keep the sector strong.

"We believe Ontario can capitalize on its strengths in advanced manufacturing, its award-winning plants and the technology driven automobiles of the future – but only if Ontario continues to attract the required investment," Oakville Mayor Rob Burton said in an open letter to the leaders on behalf of mayors of 16 municipalities.

"In this provincial election, our ability to maintain this advantage is in question," the letter says.

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The plea to the three leaders to offer specific policies for auto makers comes amid doubts about the long-term future of production in Ontario. The industry in the province is not sharing in the robust recovery from the 2008-09 recession that wiped out tens of thousands of jobs in North America and sent Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Corp. into bankruptcy protection.

Auto makers have restored many of those jobs and invested $44.7-billion (U.S.) in North America since 2010, but just $3.2-billion of that has been earmarked for Ontario.

Worries about the auto industry are particularly strong in such southwestern Ontario ridings as Elgin-Middlesex-London, where the two largest employers in St. Thomas, Ford Motor Co. and the Sterling Truck plant operated by Daimler AG, closed in the past decade. Those two plants were the city's largest private-sector employers. The closings wiped out about 2,500 jobs.

A little farther west along the shores of Lake Erie, in the neighbouring riding of Chatham-Essex-Kent, truck maker Navistar International Corp. closed its plant in 2009.

In Windsor, there are worries about the long-term future of the Chrysler minivan plant after the auto maker abruptly pulled a request for funding from the Ontario and federal governments earlier this year, saying financial assistance had become a political football.

Conservative leader Tim Hudak criticized Chrysler and Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, saying the Liberal government was being held "hostage."

Chrysler is going ahead with a new version of its minivan at the Windsor plant, but has not specified whether its original plan to invest as much as $3.6-billion in Windsor and another plant in Brampton, Ont., will proceed.

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Mr. Hudak says governments should cut taxes for all businesses, not offer subsidies to individual companies. Ms. Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath favour financial assistance to auto makers.

Mr. Burton said he thinks Mr. Hudak's view is wrong and that mayors support giving financial help to auto makers so they can compete with other jurisdictions that offer taxpayer assistance.

"I feel like a major political party has put a major part of our economy on a roulette wheel," he said in an interview on Thursday. "I think it's irresponsible."

The mayors point out that the auto industry is abandoning Australia because the government there decided against auto makers' requests for financial help.

"Historically, Ontario has a strong history of partnering with business and labour to boost its auto industry's competitiveness: direct investments into assembly and parts plants, a competitive tax regime that's one of the lowest in North America and substantial support for research and innovation," the mayors wrote.

They noted that Australia and Saudi Arabia will be the only G20 countries not assembling vehicles when production ends in Australia in 2017.

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With a report from Adrian Morrow

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

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