by Emily Leedham
After two weeks of pressure from the Oshawa community, General Motors announced yesterday it would re-open a portion of the plant to manufacture one million masks per month for health care workers.
Former Oshawa GM workers and health care workers held a joint-press conference on Thursday, April 9 demanding the Oshawa complex be nationalized and re-tooled to manufacture Personal Protective Equipment and medical equipment like ventilators.
“We’re happy, it’s a great first step,” says Tony Leah, former GM worker, Unifor 222 political action committee member, and organizer with Green Jobs Oshawa
“It looked like, it was, you know, almost an impossible demand to win,” he tells RankandFile.ca. “So getting some action, of course, is extremely gratifying. It shows that things can be done.”
“It definitely took a lot of pressure from the community, front line, you know, essential workers, and tirelessness of all the activists with Green Jobs Oshawa and our networks to get some action,” adds Tiffany Balducci, President of the Durham Region Labour Council.
However, GM is only creating 50 jobs in Oshawa, and says the plant could take three to four weeks to establish. The Oshawa conversion will be modeled after GM’s plant in Warren, Michigan, which has also been re-tooled to produce masks.
Right now, GM has about 1,000 jobs dedicated to mask production across different locations in the United States. Both Leah and Balducci would like to see job numbers grow in Canada. When GM shut down its Oshawa plant after 100 years in operation, about 5,000 direct and indirect jobs were lost in the region.
“We’re going to welcome what they’re doing,” Leah says, “and we’re going to suggest to both GM and the government, you know, there’s a lot more workers available – there’s a lot more space available.”
Right now, GM will only manufacture level 1 masks. Leah believes GM should also manufacture N95 masks and ventilators, and communicate directly with front line healthcare workers to determine what other medical supplies are needed.
Public ownership still needed
While many workers are encouraged by GM’s decision, Leah says Green Jobs Oshawa will continue to push for public ownership of the plant.
“If it’s under public ownership, then it can be the basis for expanding and becoming an important manufacturing centre that provides a security of supplies for future crises,” he explains.“That can’t happen if it’s left up to a corporation that’s always driven by maximizing their own profit.”
Leah thinks the federal and provincial governments lagged in leadership by not ordering GM to re-tool the plant. GM made the decision to re-open voluntarily.
Balducci says NDP MLA Jennifer French was a vocal ally for workers, while CPC MP Colin Carrie was dismissive.
“He actually told us it was a pipe dream,” she said. “So we had no support from him whatsoever.”
She also says the COVID-19 pandemic proves it is not impossible for the manufacturing industry to shift gears in a short amount of time – which needs to happen to address the climate crisis.
“We know it can happen relatively quickly, especially when it’s medical equipment that you’re making,” she says. “But we also know that this proves that it’s not impossible to re-tool it for other socially beneficial products, like eventually, electric vehicles for the public sector like postal vehicles.”