The Current

'A deep sense of betrayal': Oshawa GM plant closure could spark political fallout, warns prof

The GM decision to shut down operations in Oshawa highlights the rapid change brought about by technological change and shifting trade conditions. As industries change, will there be a political fallout from the communities they have supported for generations?

Working-class rage could be directed at political elites, argues Steven High

More than 2,500 workers in Oshawa will be affected by the closure of the General Motors plant. A historian argues that the closure could inspire voter anger. (Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images)
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Large factory closures, like the one announced by General Motors in Oshawa, Ont., carry with them a high human cost and potential political fallout, argues an historian.

"I think there's a deep sense of betrayal that runs across working-class communities right now," Steven High, a professor at Concordia University's centre for oral history and digital storytelling, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Decades of internalized despair have broken out into open revolt against political elites across the de-industrialized world," he said, pointing to Brexit, and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump as examples.

"There's a lot of working-class rage."

General Motors assembly plant workers in Oshawa, Ont., react to news that the automaker plans to close the facility in 2019 as part of a global restructuring plan. 0:53

He said that Canada has so far "largely escaped this political upheaval," but warned that could change "if our political parties continue to fail working people."

As part of his research, High has been interviewing displaced industrial workers since the 1990s. He said that North America's mining, mill and factory towns have paid a significant human price as more of these facilities are shut down.

"It means more than a paycheck to people. A closure shatters people's sense of belonging and identity," High said.

"The human cost of job loss can also be enormous, leading to depression, failing marriages or health, or even suicide."

Paul McDonald, a former GM worker, tells Anna Maria Tremonti about the factory's importance to the city. 1:26

General Motors confirmed Monday that it will close its 100-year-old factory in Oshawa at the end of 2019. The closure will affect more than 2,500 workers.

Unifor, the union representing the company's hourly wage earners, said in a statement that it "does not accept the closure of the plant as a foregone conclusion."

Watch Jerry Dias outline how he plans to fight the closure on CBC's Power & Politics:

'This is a company with the wherewithal to do it, but it's chosen not to,' says Unifor's national president. 6:35

In a statement, GM said that the move was in order to shift more resources to its electric and self-driving vehicle programs. At present, the Oshawa plant assembles larger vehicles like trucks, Chevrolets and Cadillacs.

'Winner and losers'

Bernie Wolf, professor emeritus of economics and international business at York University, argued that demand for those older vehicles will decline as the switch to electric and self-driving cars continues.

"This is all part of the technological change that we have to live by," he told Tremonti.

That change comes with winners and losers, "and here, the Oshawa workers happen to be the losers."

Carl Dillmam, who has worked at the General Motors plant for 37 years, sits with union members in Oshawa, Ont., as they learn the plant will close. (Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images)

He agreed that this disparity could lead to voter anger.

"The reason that you're getting these populist governments, the discontented workers, is that the benefits are not distributed appropriately.

"Basically, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by The Current's Alison Masemann, Richard Raycraft and Cameron Perrier.

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