CBC Docs POV·article

Former autoworkers push government to fund electric car manufacturing at GM plant

Proposal has financial, social and environmental benefits for the community, says study

Proposal has financial, social and environmental benefits for the community, says study

Man dressed as Santa holding a sign in front of GM plant in Oshawa (CBC)

On a production line, where jobs are often measured in seconds and every motion is timed, Rebecca Keetch has perfected installing a windshield, placing pieces of trim and injecting leveller fluid. After spending more than a decade on the floors of Oshawa, Ont.'s General Motors plant, she knows that cars and trucks are the product of accuracy, dexterity and speed.

We take for granted all the work that gets done in this world.- Rebecca Keetch

"My whole world view has changed quite a bit from when I started in the factory. When I look at a lot of things now, I don't see the finished product. I see the work and I see the people who are doing it," she said. "We take for granted all the work that gets done in this world."

It's been months since Keetch set foot inside the sprawling assembly plant, which closed in December, ending a storied century of producing automobiles. It's a story told in Company Town, a new documentary from CBC Docs POV. 

Workers hope for a new beginning building electric vehicles at the GM plant

While many in the community saw the closure of the GM Oshawa assembly facility as a bitter end to generations of factory work, Keetch and other former employees are rallying to revive it, hoping to transform its 10 million square feet of space into the plant of the future: one that manufactures electric vehicles.

The recent shuttering has been devastating for many in the city — but has also been a long time coming. 

"This city has gone through so much loss with GM. This last closure was the final nail in the coffin. But we've been bleeding good jobs for decades," she said.

When GM first signalled the plant would end vehicle production, former employees, retirees and activists in the area formed Green Jobs Oshawa with the goal of repurposing the plant to reflect the necessity for a change in the automotive sector. 

Close to 300 jobs remain at the plant, largely related to vehicle body stamping, but it's far removed from its heyday when it employed roughly 23,000 people. Keetch and other members of Green Jobs Oshawa have grand visions for what the facility could become.

A study commissioned by the group concluded that if the federal government purchased and retooled the plant with the intent of assembling electric vehicles, it could be financially viable within five years.

Building electric vehicles in Oshawa could have many benefits for the community and Canada

"We really didn't know if the whole idea was feasible. But they've been manufacturing vehicles at the plant for a hundred years. There's a really skilled workforce," said consultant Russ Christianson, the study's author. Christianson approached the study with a "triple bottom line" in mind, meaning he and others assessed not only the financial but also social and environmental components of the proposal.

Christianson estimates that with an investment of $1.4 to $1.9 billion, a revamped plant could create approximately 13,000 jobs: 2,880 in manufacturing and as many as 10,000 "multiplier jobs" — work that comes from other sectors.

The study points to the tens of thousands of government vehicles, including Canada Post trucks, that would benefit from electrification. A similar project in Germany is set to build 70,000 electric postal vehicles, said Christianson.

Car companies are already repurposing or revamping existing sites. In Lordstown, Ohio, a startup company called Lordstown Motors plans to build electric trucks in a once-mothballed GM facility. In Orion Township, Mich., GM plans to add 400 jobs at its assembly plant as part of the company's push into the electric vehicle market. 

Retooling the Oshawa plant could also decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 400,000 metric tonnes by the fifth year of production, according to the feasibility study. 

"You can actually make these vehicles, you can break even, you can create good jobs and you can decrease greenhouse gas emissions," said Christianson. "It just seems like a no-brainer."

New assembly line would need billions in government investment

While Green Jobs Oshawa's proposal has support in the community and among former plant employees, the union that represents the autoworkers is skeptical about the likelihood of a government purchase. 

"Is the federal government going to get into the auto industry and be a part owner like the Germans did for Volkswagen? I don't believe that's going to happen," said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, the largest private sector union in Canada. "But if we're going to start to answer questions of the 21st century as it relates to vehicles, then that will require a significant commitment from the federal and provincial governments."

Both Dias and Keetch point to the federal government's multi-billion-dollar investment in automakers during the 2009 global financial crisis as evidence that money often follows political will.

With the GM plant, "the footprint is there, the ability is there, the talent is there, the technology is there," said Dias. "The only thing that's lacking is the commitment [from the federal government]."

GM plant retooled to make protective medical equipment during pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has played an outsized role in demonstrating the speed in which assembly lines can be transformed. Around the world, auto parts suppliers and car manufactures were among the first to retool their production lines to develop protective medical equipment.

In recent months, the plant in Oshawa has been pumping out millions of surgical-grade masks

"We can turn on a dime and we can produce," said Dias. "That shows the importance of manufacturing jobs and having the ability to retool." 

More broadly, the pandemic has pushed forward a discussion on the transition toward a cleaner economy — and the chance to future-proof Canada's auto manufacturing sector.

"We've seen so much innovation happening in the last few months with the auto companies working with unlikely partners in the medical field. That, to me, is great leadership; it's a great innovation," said Carolyn Kim of the Pembina Institute, a clean-energy think tank. "I'd love to see us being able to retool in a way that meets the needs of the future."

A brighter future for Oshawa and its workforce is possible, says group

For Keetch, the call for a transformation also holds the promise of rethinking the work itself. 

"Green Jobs Oshawa isn't just saying that we need to have green jobs. We need to have good green jobs. We need to have jobs that provide dignity and a reasonable standard of living for people," she said. 

She doesn't miss the long, hard hours that work on an assembly line requires. But she misses the people and the sense of purpose. 

"Producing a quality product, that somebody will be able to use and enjoy, was always a high priority for people in the plant," she said. "I miss that type of thing. I would love to be working in a plant that's building something that is going to help make our future better and really benefit people."

UPDATE: In September 2020, Ford and Unifor reached an agreement to build electric vehicles and  motors in Windsor and Oakville. The federal goverment and Ontario pledged to spend up to $500 million to upgrade the Oakville facility.

Watch Company Town on CBC Docs POV.

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