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Jennifer Wells: Why Ottawa should buy the Oshawa General Motors plant, and do it now

Jennifer Wells: Why Ottawa should buy the Oshawa General Motors plant, and do it now
Business
When General Motors CEO Mary Barra delivered the hard news for the automaker last November — an “accelerated transformation” that condemned three GM assembly plants to unallocated status — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded, twitterly, with this: “GM workers have been part of the heart and soul of Oshawa for generations — and we will do everything we can to help the families affected by this news get back on their feet.”

We can recall the over-my-dead-body fulminations of Unifor president Jerry Dias. The made-in-Mexico boycott (check your VIN numbers, auto owners). The political pleadings at the North American International Auto Show (or the Detroit Auto Show as I still call it). And the head scratching: what does “unallocated” mean?

So Oshawa, Detroit-Hamtramck and Lordstown in Ohio were to be shed from the assembly lineup, the terrible news barely assuaged by the later announcement that a few hundred aftermarket jobs — stamping and parts assembly — would be tossed Oshawa’s way. Hardly the scale of work to keep a 10-million-square-foot manufacturing complex humming. The jobs numbers: a step down from an initial loss of roughly 2,500 jobs to 2,200. As I have written previously, the devolution of Oshawa has taken it from the forefront of auto manufacturing to piecework.

Where was the brave thinking? Where was the innovation?

Now, with a near 50,000 unionized GM workers in the United States off the job, a walkout that spreads across dozens of factories and parts warehouses, it’s time for another look.

Interesting, isn’t it, that under the weight of union bargaining for better wages and benefits GM has, in fact, reassessed the prospects for Hamtramck? Automotive News and others have reported that the automaker is offering to reallocate the plant with an all-electric pickup truck. Lordstown could get a boost with the allocation of an electric vehicle battery. By the time you read this, the strike may in fact have been resolved.

Little wonder that the bailed out, hugely profitable, tax incentivized automaker is eager to push faster on electric. And little wonder that it wants to speed up the race for an EV truck. “We’re selling every truck we build,” Barra told analysts last spring, and she was referring to the gas guzzling kind. Consumers are at last onside with the electric imperative.

And Oshawa?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh promises $300 million for revived auto innovation fund

One might think that a federal election at a time of climate crisis — go electric — would be an opportune moment for politicians to lay out innovative plans for the sector. Aside from the pledge by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to create a national automotive strategy, anchored by a $300-million Automotive Innovation Fund, the plight of today’s working auto families appears to be going unaddressed. That goes doubly for the future of the sector.

On Thursday, a feasibility study on the future of the plant is being released, authored by a business consultant named Russ Christianson and commissioned by Green Jobs Oshawa, a group of autoworkers, retirees and community members. I can’t tell you what’s in the study yet, except to say that instead of accepting the closure, or the vast diminution, of the plant, Christianson makes the business case for transforming it into an electric hub.

I’m not going to prejudge. But it does raise the question posed previously in the pages of the Star: if GM is determined to stick with its shadow commitment to the facility, why not have government assume ownership and use the facility to define a new Canada? By which I mean a Canada that doesn’t buy a pipeline (oh, right, it did), but casts ahead to creating socially sustainable, economically fulfilling jobs in the new economy as opposed to the outgoing resource-based one?

And this is the time to do it — the plant remains live until year’s end. As soon as it starts falling to mothballed status, its prospects collapse.

The fast take on the strike in the U.S. was to look to the potential impact on parts and assembly that feed from Ontario to GM manufacturing south of the border, manufacturing that is currently idled. This makes eminent sense in the day-to-day news cycle.
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