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END OF THE LINE: Despite GM closure, Oshawa has plenty of gas in its tank

Oshawa today is a tale of two cities.

When General Motors shuts down in a few days, it’ll be the end of an era for the town.

On Dec. 20, the last vehicle will roll off the assembly line as the industry that defined Oshawa for 100 years closes its doors.

But for all that the history of Oshawa is entwined with the history of GM, the city is no longer dependent upon cars and trucks for either its jobs or its identity. Oshawa has evolved into an education, health sciences and IT hub and is currently experiencing a real estate boom.

In its heyday, GM Canada employed more than 20,000 people in Oshawa, indirectly creating other jobs in all the attendant services required to house and feed that workforce.

But GM’s glory days are long past.

Assembly line workers build the Chevrolet Camaro at the GM plant in Oshawa, Ont., on Friday, Dec. 16, 2011. (Postmedia file photo)

The big American automaker had the best of people and places, using up four generations of loyal workers all over North America before departing for greener — or at least cheaper — pastures, sometimes leaving polluted ghost towns in its wake.

It was exactly 30 years ago — Dec. 20, 1989 —  that documentary filmmaker Michael Moore released Roger & Me, a sharp social commentary on the damage done by a huge GM downsizing in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan.

As Roger Ebert wrote of the film at the time: “It considers one of the real issues in America today —  whether the traditional American ethic of fair play between worker and employer has been replaced by a paganistic corporate worship of the bottom line.”

Did an ethic of fair play between worker and employer ever exist in America?

When GM closes its doors in Oshawa next week, 2500 factory workers and 300 salaried staff will be out of work; meanwhile, GM’s current CEO, Mary Barra, earned just shy of $22 million in salary, stock awards and pension payments in 2018.

GM leaving Oshawa means almost 3,000 will be unemployed, and that will affect the whole city — every factory job is connected to nine other jobs in the area.

And they’re critical of Premier Doug Ford, whose response to the plant closing announcement a year ago was to quote GM Canada honcho Travis Hester: “That ship has already left the dock.”

Some in Oshawa concede the writing was on the wall for GM workers a long time ago. Others hold out hope that GM will return in a few years, or that the plant will be repurposed to build electric vehicles or other products.

Crystal, a former GM worker, pointed out that panic will likely hit Oshawa over the next few months as the reality of unemployment sets in — and the EI payments stop.

“After the hopes and dreams fade, and people realize, ‘I don’t have a job!’ it will be grim,” she predicts.

Another young women said her mother-in-law, who is 50, will be out of work.

“There’s a lot of stress. She went to work for GM right out of high school and always thought she’d retire from GM.”

GM assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont., on Thursday, March 21, 2019. (Stan Behal/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)

A longtime auto worker confided that he felt sorry for some of the single mothers with whom he works.

“This was their only chance to get off welfare and get back in the work force,” he said.

He also worries for the older workers who don’t have much hope of finding another job; he has no illusions about GM’s ongoing presence in Oshawa. Yes, there may be jobs related to testing autonomous vehicles, and so forth, but those will be salaried positions.

“GM’s plans have nothing to do with union guys,” he said. “The work won’t be for guys like me.”

Ironically, the first person who speaks enthusiastically about Oshawa’s future is the man in charge of the city’s past, Alex Gates, the Executive Director and Curator of the Canadian Automotive Museum.

Gates oversees an important collection of vintage cars and other items related to Canada’s automotive history and has an encyclopedic knowledge of both the city and the auto industry. He also has boundless enthusiasm for Oshawa.

Gates talked about the city’s growth as a commuter community, comparing it to Hamilton as a place with a new lease on life thanks to affordability.

Oshawa has Go service and two major highways linking it to Toronto and expanded work opportunities.

Big houses being built in the northwest of the city have seen the area dubbed “Poshawa,” but it’s not just a real estate boom that’s fuelling change in Oshawa. Jobs are being created by the health sector, and in education at Ontario Tech University and Durham College.

President of Durham College, Don Lovisa, is one of the people helping Oshawa bridge old and new and make the transition from a 20th century industry to the contemporary workplace.

He feels hopeful about the city because he knows there are a lot of job opportunities in Durham Region.

Lovisa and his colleagues, Tara Koski (Career Development and Co-op) and Peter Garrett (Government Relations and Strategic Reporting), want everyone to know about the support systems in place for workers who need help finding the next thing.

They’ve created a special online portal for GM workers that gives them access to job postings, information on retraining and other employment resources. There are over 1,000 jobs posted on that portal, all carefully curated so job seekers aren’t overwhelmed with information.

Those who are not computer literate can find help with that, too.

Durham College on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)

Growing up, Lovisa saw the pulp and paper mill in his town disappear, so he is sympathetic.

“There weren’t any of the supports we have now. It’s hard on families. We have GM families at Durham College,” he said. “We understand how difficult and stressful it is. But we also know that with the right supports people can find good job opportunities.”

Meanwhile, Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter wants to look to the future without forgetting the past.

Asked about the coming changes in Oshawa, he said he feels “anxious but excited.”

Carter is anxious for those who will be out of work and whose fathers and grandfathers worked for GM, “because GM is in their DNA.”

“It’s important to be respectful to those going through a difficult change,” he said. “At the same time I’m excited for those who see a positive future here.”

Carter believes in the people of Oshawa.

“You have to consider our resilience over the 100 years of being productive and innovative,” he said. “That hasn’t disappeared — it just means we’ll be doing it differently.”

Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter at his office at City Hall in Oshawa, Ont., on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. (Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)

Differently so far looks like the 9,000 jobs in Oshawa’s IT industry or the 11,000 in health care, and the many others in education and agriculture.

“It’s part of our job to face reality, but also to be able to talk about this moment of history, of transition — how we embrace this moment will be part of our future … People here are optimistic, hopeful. They talk about affordability, the fact that it’s a safe community, that there’s green space.”

“You start talking about these things, and people realize — we are a lot more than what we once were,” Carter said.

He believes the future is bright and just wants to be sure everyone is included in the city’s transformation.

“Where we are today, we’re at a moment where our arts, culture and creative thinkers are doing incredible things. Our post secondary education is doing incredible things. Our cancer hospital here is one of the best in Ontario,” Carter said. “We have to build on those positive things, and continue to grow.”

“The autonomous track GM is building is an incredible opportunity for us, a unique track testing electric and autonomous vehicles, and it goes hand in hand with what’s going on in our colleges and universities,” he said. “So we’re going to play a big part in the transportation business one way or the other. Just differently, that’s all.”

“We look at such a broad spectrum now in our buffet of opportunities,” Carter added.

lbraun@postmedia.com

HISTORY OF GM IN OSHAWA

General Motors Oshawa is set on 700 acres and has about eight million square feet of space.

GM began life there with carriage builder Samuel McLaughlin and his friend William Durant around 1907.

By 1918 their company had morphed into General Motors of Canada with an assist from GM, a 10-year-old company in Flint, Michigan.

– 1921:  Oshawa plant is thriving, building Buicks and Oldsmobiles.

– 1924: Oshawa becomes a city (pop. 15,545).

– 1930: More than half of all North American families now own a car.

– 1937: 4,000 Oshawa employees strike over better wages and conditions and an eight-hour work day.

– 1953:  Second Assembly plant is up and running.

– 1980s: Canada’s “GM Autoplex” is thriving with 23,000 employees turning out 730,000 cars and trucks yearly.

– 1996 : Three-week strike hobbles GM North America.

– 2005: GM announces closure of 12 plants in North America, including the Oshawa No. 2 plant, and layoffs of 30,000. In Oshawa, where the plants continued to win awards for efficiency and productivity, 2750 jobs are gone.

– 2008 and 2009: Recession won GM a $60 billion bailout in North America, 10.8 billion from federal and provincial governments here in exchange for a 12% ownership of company shares (sold by 2015).

 – 2009: Three weeks after a new agreement in which GM promised to maintain production at the Oshawa truck plant, Truck Assembly closes — ending 44 years of GM building trucks in Canada.

– 2012: GM says it will close the consolidated plant in Oshawa and lay off 2,000 workers.

– 2014 and 2015: GM deals with the ignition switch glitch — a debacle  linked to a dozen deaths, many other injuries and hundreds of millions in settlements. The fix was a 57 cent part, a cost increase GM found “unacceptable.”

– 2016: GM invests in Oshawa so the flex line is able to produce both cars and trucks.

– 2018: GM announces the end for the Oshawa facility and over 100 years of auto making in the city.

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