“General Motors is not the solution. General Motors is the problem,” loud applause followed autoworker Tony Leah’s declaration at the front of the room at IBEW Hall. His speech was part of an event, Nationalize General Motors: Oshawa’s Green New Deal.
The evening served as the first organizing meeting for a grassroots campaign to encourage government action at GM Oshawa. Allies from across Durham Region came to get involved, including people from health, education, and other public services. They hope to turn the GM’s future in Canada into a 2019 federal election issue.
Nationalize under workers’ control
The central demand of the campaign is for GM Oshawa to be, “nationalized without compensation and placed under democratic workers’ and community control”. Many activists involved said that GM has already been compensated for the plant, several times over, through past auto bailouts and concessions. Leah, chair of Unifor Local 222’s Political Action Committee, articulated what worker and community control actually means when pressed.
“Who do you ask what would be best done? You ask the workers, who know what they could build and what they could use that equipment for, and you ask the community what’s needed,” said Leah. Determining what can be made at the plant with the equipment, labour, and expertise present would be a central task. The aim is to turn both the workers in the plant and the community around it into active stakeholders, creating things for social good. Power here is taken from big business and placed directly in the hands of the people around the plant. This is all meant to tackle two major problems: distant corporate decision-making, and a needed green transition.
Labour solidarity made a big showing at the event with the presence of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ (CUPW) “Delivering Community Power” campaign. Unifor’s split from the Canadian Labour Congress in 2018 has not stopped rank and file activists from continuing their work together. Unifor activists, for example, helped shut down Canada Post facilities when CUPW members were legislated back to work last fall. CUPW president Mike Palecek said GM’s unwillingness to stay coupled with the plant’s essential status in Oshawa means public ownership is path forward.
Canada Post currently operates the largest fleet of public vehicles in the country. Part of their Delivering Community Power campaign is to turn all of these vehicles electric, a task Oshawa may be up to. This would be a massive proof of concept, but the ideas don’t stop there. Activists have floated the manufacture of medical devices and solar panels at the Oshawa plant, among other things.
“There’s also a leadership vaccum on this issue here,” said Palecek. He partly credits Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for popularizing the Green New Deal in the United States. The Delivering Community Power – Green New Deal campaign here aims to create that political leadership, win, and inspire workers beyond Southern Ontario.
The ambitious proposal meet the seemingly impossible historical circumstances, all lining up in 2019. There is, of course, the announced closure of the Oshawa assembly plant. Most conversations about the closure have centered around the idea of 2,200 workers losing good paying work. Often forgotten are the 3,000 supplier jobs outside the plant, many of which are also represented by Unifor Local 222. A full 15 per cent of auto industry jobs are threatened by GM leaving Oshawa. Then there are the thousands of service, retail, and care sector jobs across southern Ontario which depend on the strong incomes of autoworkers. Unifor says that for every worker at GM Oshawa, seven spinoff jobs are created.
Ford and Trudeau abandon autoworkers
Compounding the issues at GM Oshawa is a provincial government that has given up on the plant before the fight began. The moment Premier Ford threw in the towel is well remembered by autoworkers here. Ford decided to take GM’s word that, “that ship has already left the dock” after a meeting with the company. He later announced a $40 million retraining and innovation program for the auto sector. Many involved in the GM Oshawa closure fight give this little weight, as Ford’s strategy does not provide for jobs once those workers are retrained. “That is bluster and bullshit from Ford,” said Rebecca Keetch, a production operator at Oshawa’s truck plant. Keetch recalls Ford saying nothing could be done to help her and her coworkers.
Prime Minister Trudeau, for his part, has made it obvious that his government is not against spending billions of dollars of public funds to assist fledgling corporations. Trudeau’s government infamously helped Kinder Morgan last year by purchasing the TransMountain pipeline for $4.5 billion, estimated to cost an additional $7.2. billion to actually build. It was Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives who gave $10.2 billion in public funds to a desperate GM in 2008. The remaining loans to GM and Chrysler were quietly written off last year, costing the public an estimated $3.7 billion.
History has made the political terrain ripe for a Green New Deal. Through the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Trudeau has essentially advanced the argument that some corporations should be allowed to act illegally to protect jobs – 9,000 is the oft-cited, dubious number. The Conservatives, who’s federal campaign is headed by former Rebel Media executive Hamish Marshall, may yet pivot on this issue if they heed the Republicans’ 2016 story. Donald Trump used the Carrier air conditioner plant and “clean coal” as political cudgels against his opponent. While disingenuous, they were effective election ploys. The NDP has not advanced calls for nationalization either. Oshawa NDP MPP Jennifer French has said it’s possible that the federal party take up Green New Deal demands from the Nationalize GM event. But so far no policy has emerged.
Virtually every GM Oshawa worker asked has expressed surprise and disappointment at the lack of federal engagement on the plant closure. As it stands, none of the federal parties have taken up calls to nationalize GM Oshawa.
Lynn Ross, who works in inspection and paint at the plant, is not waiting until voting begins in October. She joined with Leah, CUPW organizers, and other allies after the National Day of Mourning event honouring fallen workers in Oshawa on April 28. Ross was part of the second canvassing session around Oshawa for the Nationalize GM – Green New Deal campaign. Up and down the streets of the city, there was strong support at the door for the demands.
The responses in both group canvassing sessions were overwhelmingly positive. This reflects recent findings about Canadians – 61 per cent are in favour of a Green New Deal. The contours of that deal may be shaped by a crisis turned inspirational at the Oshawa plant. The door knocking has already begun.