As 2,800 General Motors employees in Oshawa, Ont., reel from the news that their jobs appear poised to disappear, the automaker is hiring for jobs located 50 kilometres away.
There’s a key difference, though, and it’s indicative of larger changes affecting the auto sector in Canada and around the world.
The open positions in Markham, Ont., are for programmers and engineers at a new research facility launched by GM earlier this year. They require a significantly different skill set than the traditional manufacturing jobs leaving Oshawa.
GM has said part of the reason it has no plans to produce vehicles in Oshawa past 2019 is because of a company-wide shift to autonomous and electric vehicles. That means more white-collar jobs for the likes of software developers, and fewer blue-collar assembly positions.
Company president Mary Barra said Monday that vehicles had become “much more software-oriented” than in the past, requiring GM to emphasize coding skills in its workforce.
Other auto plants also at risk
Wayne Lewchuk, a labour studies professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, says Canadian auto manufacturing jobs are being “squeezed” by the economic opportunities available to automakers in Mexico, where workers are paid significantly less.
Speaking Tuesday, on CTV’s Your Morning, Lewchuk said Oshawa was the “crown jewel” of the Canadian auto industry as recently as the early 2000s. Canadian auto production was at its peak at that time, with nearly 200,000 workers turning out more than three million vehicles a year, including nearly one million from Oshawa.
The country-wide numbers are now closer to 125,000 auto workers and two million vehicles annually. Tom Lasorda, a former president of Chrysler, said the only way to entice automakers to reverse that trend would be for the federal government to offer some sort of incentives.
Without that happening, he said, more factories are likely at risk of closure – including one in the Greater Toronto Area belonging to his former company.
“Brampton’s next,” he told BNN Bloomberg. “What’s the government going to do there?”
Can the Oshawa plant be saved?
The official line from General Motors, backed up by the provincial and federal governments, has been that there is no chancefor a reversal of the decision announced Monday.
Unifor, which represents workers at the Oshawa plant, has taken a different stance. Union president Jerry Dias has said he is braced for “one hell of a fight” to keep the Oshawa plant producing vehicles.
“They have to build them somewhere, and Oshawa’s as good a place as any,” he told CTV’s Your Morning.
“We can’t just sit back and let our No. 1 industry continue to leave.”
Dias has argued that Unifor’s current contract with GM specifies that no manufacturing facilities subject to the deal can be closed until it expires in 2020. GM has not outright said that the Oshawa facility will close, instead stating that it will not have any products allocated to it. The Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac XTS models currently produced in Oshawa are being discontinued, with pickup truck assembly work being moved elsewhere.
Lewchuk suggested that Unifor might have some ability to exert leverage over GM, noting that they represent workers at GM’s other Canadian factories and seem to have the ear of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“I think they can put some pressure on the company,” he said.
Lewchuk said it “would not be out of the norm” for the closure announcement to be an opening salvo in contract negotiations between GM and Unifor. The current agreement between the automaker and its workers expires in 2020, and was negotiated with the future of the Oshawa plant as a key issue.
“Every round of bargaining, the union has had to bargain to get product in their plants,” Lewchuk said.
The map below breaks down—by Census divisions—employment numbers in the automotive industry in Ontario, for the years 2006, 2011 and 2016. In the pop-ups for each division, hit the arrow key to shuttle through job numbers for each year. Can't see the map? Click here.