GM Oshawa workers worry more layoffs could lead to plant closure
Workers at GM in Oshawa are concerned the plant could eventually close as job numbers dwindle
"Where'd all that work go?" asks longtime General Motors worker Frank Giarrizzo after getting confirmation about the latest layoffs to hit the Oshawa auto plant.
In 1987, shortly after Giarrizzo joined GM, the plant employed about 15,000 workers. Following numerous rounds of layoffs, just 3,600 remain today. And the cuts continue; GM will axe another 1,000 jobs by November.
The scary thing is, the numbers just keep getting smaller.-— Jim McAuliffe, GM worker
"When I started, it was good," says Giarrizzo. "But they've pushed it too far, one extreme to the other."
As Canada's auto sector continues to shrink, some Oshawa workers fear their plant will continue to lose jobs to the point where it shuts down.
And then there were none?
"The scary thing is, the numbers just keep getting smaller. I mean, the writing's on the wall in that respect. It is a big building and it is an aging building," says another longtime Oshawa GM worker, Jim McAuliffe.
"The uncertainty in all this is almost mind-numbing at this point," says employee Rebecca Keetch.
Keetch has worked on the GM assembly line since 2006. If enough senior employees take retirement packages, she believes she'll be immune from the latest round of layoffs. But she fears it could just be a temporary reprieve because of looming troubles ahead.
"Everybody's worried," she says. "There's a lot of fear that the plant can be closed."
That's because the plant's consolidated line making Chevrolet's Impala and Equinox models is scheduled to end in 2016. If that happens, another 700 jobs or so could be cut.
And it would leave Oshawa with only two shifts working one production line. The risk for workers is that as production gets smaller, the plant becomes less viable.
"Most people say unless there's new product, it's not very feasible that [the plant] will stay open. That seems to be the current feeling on the floor," says Keetch.
"It makes it very unpleasant when people don't know how they can plan their lives," adds the 40-year-old, who fears losing her home if she loses her job.
She says her position has never felt entirely secure working in Canada's auto sector, but that "right now, it's about as insecure as it could possibly be."
Oshawa's GM's plant is symbolic of the slow decline of the Canadian auto industry, as companies opt for cheaper production locales, largely in Mexico.
Canada has lost 14,300 automotive assembly jobs since 2001, most of them in Ontario, according to the Automotive Policy Research Centre. Another 38,900 jobs have disappeared from the auto parts sector.
GM Oshawa's latest job cuts come as the company relocates its Camaro sports car production to Michigan. Auto analyst Tony Faria says the Oshawa location has gone from making almost 900,000 cars a year in 2000 to 277,000 a year by 2014.
Now with the loss of further production, the University of Windsor professor says the plant's fate hinges on the company bringing in a new line. "We badly need a new vehicle announced for Oshawa," he says.
GM says it remains committed to Canada, but it's not committing to anything for the plant until it wraps up union contract negotiations next year.
Faria says that means everything rides on GM negotiating a deal that pleases the company. "If they don't get a favourable contract, that could well spell the end of the assembly in Oshawa," he says.
It remains to be seen what will constitute as a favourable contract. In 2012 negotiations, the union already allowed GM to hire new employees at lower pay and benefit rates. "We've got a two-tiered wage system in there and [new hires] don't get near the benefits that we get," says longtime worker McAuliffe.
"It`s going to get worse, especially if they want more concessions, next contract," predicts worker Giarrizzo. Speaking about junior employees he says, "They're going to nail them hard and the big thing is they're going to go after pensions. They don't want them to have the same pension as us."
The autoworkers union, Unifor, remains optimistic about upcoming talks. "We're going to continue to meet with GM and I'm convinced we'll find a solution," says Unifor president Jerry Dias.
He points to the efficiency of the newer Oshawa line and the fact that a low Canadian dollar has helped cut GM's costs in Canada.
"We're heading in the wrong direction and we need to fix it and we need to fix it now," Dias says about the auto industry.
But it may be difficult to turn the tide. Just last month, Toyota announced it will move its popular Corolla sedan line from its plant in Cambridge, Ont., to Mexico.
Also in April, Ford announced it will invest $2.5 billion to build two new plants in Mexico.
McAuliffe may not wait around to find out the fate of his GM job. After 30 years of service, he's considering taking a retirement package the company is now offering to help offset the layoffs.
"The place isn't beating me up yet, but I got to tell you, it's getting harder and harder in there," he says.
Even if he retires, McAuliffe still has high hopes for his employer because of the workers he will leave behind at the Oshawa plant.
"I want that place to stay open and running and viable and building lots of cars and making lots of money for GM so they never consider closing," he says. "There's a lot of young families in there that are dependent on these jobs. And these are hard-working, good people."