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GM continues to rake in massive profits while sacrificing Canadian jobs

Gord Henderson

Updated: February 9, 2019

I was yawning my way through the Stupor Bowl with a few friends last Sunday when the hardest hit of the game, delivered by Unifor, turned that snore-fest into a jaw-clanging reality check.

“Wow. Did they really say that? That was…um, freakin’ amazing. Just brutal,” someone gasped as we digested the in-your-face Unifor commercial “GM leaves Canadians Out in the Cold” that aired across Canada during the Super Bowl and had GM’s legal beagles howling for the union to “cease and desist” or face lawsuits.

You know a message has hit the sweet spot, deep in the corporate solar plexus, when they call out the top-drawer legal talent to try to block it from being seen.

Some commentators have described the Unifor ads as counter-productive and likely to leave GM even more determined to downsize its Canadian operations. “This is biting off your nose to spite your face,” warned one Toronto TV business analyst.

Maybe so, but I can’t help feeling a sense of giddy relief that someone — certainly not our senior politicians — has the guts to stand up for working Canadians instead of meekly accepting the mass export of our blue-collar jobs to Mexico and other bargain-basement nations.

Unifor president Jerry Dias might not be successful in his aggressive campaign to save the GM assembly operation in Oshawa and its nearly 3,000 jobs. That would be a huge climb-down for the automaker.

But Dias is surely playing the longer game. By making life miserable and costly for GM over its Oshawa decision, he’s upping the price of a close-out agreement while putting the company on notice that further downsizing, either in Ingersoll or St. Catharines, will meet feverish resistance.

By bringing all this heat, Unifor is sending a message to other automakers, including here in Windsor, that any future shutdown would be both costly and immensely damaging to its reputation. Dias is drawing a line in the sand. I just wish there had been that same passion when GM closed its transmission plant and left Windsor in 2010.

Smug urban elitists, the kind of folks who helped elect Donald Trump through their collective disdain for American working people, have been saying it’s time for countries like Canada and the U.S. to focus on the new innovative, hi-tech economy and leave assembly work for less developed nations. But they have no answers, other than buyouts, for those who would be left behind.

It saddens me, having lived in both cities, to think that the longstanding rivalry between Windsor and Oshawa for the title of Canada’s automotive capital will soon end in a forfeit by the latter.

From a Windsor perspective, having long hosted multiple automakers, it’s difficult to imagine how big a deal GM was in Oshawa back in the day.

In the late 1960s The General boasted more than 20,000 employees in a city with barely 80,000 residents. Imagine Windsor with 50,000 Chrysler workers. That’s how important the company was in Oshawa. It was the heart and soul of the city.

Oshawa worshipped three gods when I worked there: GM, hockey legend Bobby Orr who had captivated the city before graduating to the Boston Bruins and, above all, Colonel Robert Samuel McLaughlin, the founder of McLaughlin Motors which evolved into General Motors of Canada.

A larger-than-life businessman and beloved philanthropist who died at the age of 100 in 1972, “The Colonel” was revered in Oshawa. He, in effect, made the city, and the city never forgot. The milestones of his life, celebrated at his Oshawa mansion, Parkwood Estate, were major social and media occasions.

The Colonel would not, I suspect, be amused to see what’s left of his legacy consigned to the dustbin because workers are available in Mexico for a relative pittance.

The ominous thing for Windsor is that GM’s Oshawa decision, defensible or not, has further tainted the issue of government bailouts for automotive companies.

As prime minister, Stephen Harper came under withering criticism for agreeing, in the depths of the Great Recession, to help rescue GM and Chrysler from bankruptcy. It was the right call and paid huge dividends here in Windsor with a resurgent Chrysler Assembly operation.

But next time, and there’s always a next time, it will be that much harder to justify a government lifeline.

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