Workers walk out as GM confirms plan to shutter Oshawa plant

Ryan Flanagan, Web Journalist,   @flanaganryan

General Motors has confirmed plans to shut its assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont., where workers say they won’t give up their jobs without a fight.

“I can assure you of one thing: that plant is not closing without the fight of our lives,” Greg Moffat, the chair of the plant’s union local, said Monday.

“The sooner they realize that our plant is not closing, the better off they’re going to be.

CTV Toronto was first to report that GM plans to cease its operations at the facility. GM made its own announcement Monday, saying the Oshawa facility would no longer have any vehicles allocated to it by the end of 2019, along with facilities in Michigan and Ohio.

Moffat told reporters that he and other Unifor leaders will meet with GM early Monday afternoon, with the union holding a press conference afterward.

The union did instruct its members to leave the plant Monday morning rather than wait to hear GM’s planned internal announcement.

“You’ve got to take a stand at one point, so that’s what we’re doing,” one woman said as she made her exit.

Despite workers’ optimism that a solution could be found to keep the plant in operation, as has happened several times in the past, Ont. Premier Doug Ford said he’d been told by GM that the company would not rethink its decision.

“They’re gone; they’re done. They told me straight up there’s nothing we can do,” he said.

GM’s other Canadian facilities – in St. Catharines, Ont. and Ingersoll, Ont. – are not affected by Monday’s announcement.

The company said the changes, which will also see two unspecified plants outside North America be shuttered, were the result of shifts in consumer demand.

“We recognize the need to stay in front of changing market conditions and customer preferences to position our company for long-term success,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a press release.

In addition, GM plans to cut its non-union staffing levels by 15 per cent, including a 25 per cent reduction in the executive ranks.

The various closures and other measures are expected to save the company approximately $6 billion per year in expenses. GM also announced that it intends to double its spending on electric and autonomous vehicles within the next two years.

Unifor has said a closure would not be in keeping with the spirit of the latest collective agreement between GM and its workers, which was signed in 2016. The union will provide further comments Monday afternoon at a news conference.

The federal government loaned GM $10.8 billion in 2009, to help keep the company afloat as it stared down insolvency. A condition of that loan was that GM would not reduce its manufacturing operations in Canada for six years.

Ken Lewenza, a former president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, told CTV News Channel that maintaining the Oshawa operation was workers’ top priority during the 2016 negotiation, and the company appeared to be willing to keep it open. GM said at the time that it would invest $554 million in its Ontario operations, including in Oshawa.

“Our members felt good about their future. They felt secure for the first time in decades,” he said.

“This is, quite frankly … a betrayal of the contents of the conversations we had just two short years ago.”

A full closure of the Oshawa plant would leave 2,500 unionized workers and 300 salaried employees out of work, with indirect effects rippling across the southern Ontario auto industry and beyond.

Oshawa Mayor John Henry said he had met with company representatives within the past month. They had talked about ideas for what to do with vacant GM-owned lands in the city, Henry said, and nothing was said to suggest that GM didn’t see a future for itself in Oshawa.

GM announced last month that it was offering buyouts to approximately 18,000 of its 50,000 salaried employees in North America. It said the buyouts, which were announced on the same day the company reported a $2.5-billion profit, were due to expected future financial challenges brought on by declining sales and U.S.-imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The company has promised to reduce its structural costs by $6.5 billion per year by the end of 2018, and said in October that it was close to delivering on that pledge.

As of July, GM had five factories in the U.S. operating significantly below capacity. Two of those five were among the plants earmarked for closure in Monday’s announcement.

GM production in Oshawa began in 1953 and peaked in the 1980s, when the company employed 23,000 people in the city.

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