GM shut­down hu­mil­i­a­tion

Oshawa shut­down hu­mil­i­a­tion is the last nail in the cof­fin of a once-pow­er­ful na­tional tra­di­tion

NOW Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By WAYNE ROBERTS [email protected] | @nowtoronto

Gen­eral Mo­tors’ sur­prise an­nounce­ment on Novem­ber 26 of the im­pend­ing shut­down of its his­toric Oshawa auto fac­tory was taken in stride by main­stream me­dia and busi­ness re­porters.

It’s a sad time for those em­ployed at the com­pany, that’s for sure. But it’s noth­ing like the dis­as­trous im­pact a shut­down could have had if it was back in the days when the plant em­ployed 36,000 work­ers, the pun­dits said. It will be hard on the 2,500 peo­ple con­nected to the plant, but 2,500 job open­ings come up ev­ery few days in Canada’s boom­ing econ­omy.

Both state­ments are fac­tu­ally cor­rect but en­tirely miss the point – or rather, two points that de­serve to be seen as part and par­cel of the story of the Oshawa clo­sure.

The first and glar­ingly ob­vi­ous point is that 2,500 jobs pay­ing in the neigh­bour­hood of $80,000 a year are not to be found any­where in any Cana­dian ser­vice, re­tail, heavy in­dus­try or high-tech shops. This shut­down was the last nail in the cof­fin of the legacy Eu­ro­pean so­cial an­a­lysts call “les trente glo­rieuses” – the years from 1950 to 1980 when able-bod­ied work­ers could find fac­tory and of­fice jobs that paid for a house, a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion for their kids and a pen­sion that turned old age into the sun­set years. Gen­eral Mo­tors once lived up to that ideal, and earned the nick­name among its em­ploy­ees of “Gen­er­ous Mo­tors.”

That ship, as Doug Ford said at Queen’s Park, has now left the dock.

The sec­ond, and glar­ingly sup­pressed, point is that, in liv­ing mem­ory, Cana­dian politi­cians of the left, right and cen­tre would have as­sumed a shut­down of this mag­ni­tude was a prob­lem of in­dus­trial pol­icy and strat­egy.

These pil­lars of gov­ern­ment eco­nomic pol­icy had been an as­sumed part of Canada’s stature as a mod­ern na­tion since 1878, when Canada’s first Prime Min­is­ter, John A. Macdon­ald, coined the term “Na­tional Pol­icy” to de­scribe his in­dus­trial strat­egy based on high tar­iffs to pro­tect lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing and mar­kets for Cana­dian farm­ers.

The same as­sump­tion has held steady in On­tario since the early 1900s, when “Em­pire On­tario” meant pub­licly owned hy­dro to sup­ply man­u­fac­tur­ers, and the le­gal re­quire­ment of lo­cal pro­cess­ing to pre­vent for­eign cor­po­ra­tions from tak­ing raw re­sources out of the prov­ince and lo­cat­ing those jobs else­where.

These were not just in­dus­trial poli­cies. They were part of lo­cal and na­tional iden­ti­ties. Cer­tainly Bill Davis, On­tario pre­mier dur­ing the early 1980s, and Pierre Trudeau, prime min­is­ter in the same era, took in­dus­trial pol­icy and strat­egy as a given.

The con­sen­sus shared across di­vides be­tween Que­bec and English Canada, and among vot­ers from the left, right and cen­tre, was that in­dus­trial pol­icy and strat­egy were es­sen­tial to a mod­ern coun­try.

Ev­ery­one un­der­stood that de­ci­sions as to what plants went where and when would be made in and by “the mar­ket,” but the over­all game plan for what plants went where in­volved much more than eco­nom­ics and mar­kets. It was about good jobs, do­mes­tic con­trol of lo­cal eco­nomic fu­tures, link­ing ben­e­fits for work­ers and farm­ers in var­i­ous re­gions and pro­vid­ing for peo­ple of var­i­ous ages and skills.

The big­gest weak­ness in that old con­sen­sus was the is­sue of what to do in the event of fac­tory shut­downs.

Ev­ery­one as­sumed the new jobs would go on for­ever. Why would any­one leave? But the idea that mar­kets would one day be global, not just con­ti­nen­tal, and that cor­po­ra­tions would one day be transna­tional, not just multi­na­tional, was not imag­ined. Nor could it be con­ceived that the dis­tances be­tween pro­duc­ers and con­sumers, or be­tween com­pany ex­ec­u­tives and pro­duc­ers, could ever be very far apart. As a re­sult, laws in On­tario and Canada lagged far be­hind Europe, where plan­ning for shut­downs was part of in­dus­trial strat­egy and pol­icy.

In Europe, a com­pany that took bil­lions of dol­lars in in­cen­tives, as GM did in 2009, could not just an­nounce one day that it was clos­ing shop. It had to meet be­fore­hand with union and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and plan its exit, in­clud­ing mul­ti­ple obli­ga­tions to af­fected work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties.

These Eu­ro­pean obli­ga­tions were so oner­ous that any cor­po­ra­tion with a base in Europe looked to the colonies for a place to shut down – a place where gov­ern­ments im­posed no price on clo­sures, and where work­ers didn’t oc­cupy the plant to keep it in­tact for re-open­ing un­der work­ers’ aus­pices.

On­tario’s Ford gov­ern­ment would likely re­sist such re­stric­tions on global cor­po­ra­tions as be­ing con­trary to its com­mit­ment to make On­tario “open for busi­ness.” But open for busi­ness is for suck­ers who cre­ate con­di­tions ripe for a quick and easy clo­sure. And hu­mil­i­at­ing On­tario and Cana­dian gov­ern­ments and work­ers by shut­ting down Oshawa with­out no­tice or ne­go­ti­a­tions is the last nail in the cof­fin of a once-pow­er­ful na­tional tra­di­tion.

In Europe, a com­pany that took bil­lions of dol­lars in in­cen­tives, as GM did in 2009, could not just an­nounce one day that it was clos­ing shop.

In its hey­day, GM’s as­sem­bly plant in Oshawa em­ployed 36,000 peo­ple.

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