Published On: Wed, Nov 28th, 2018

Trudeau and Ford should speak louder for GM workers

Is it time for Justin Trudeau to discover his inner Trump? Should the prime minister, in other words, stop being so darn reasonable, so quintessentially Canadian, in the face of General Motors’ decision to turn off the lights at its Oshawa auto plant?

Both Trudeau and Premier Doug Ford are acting as if there’s nothing to be done about GM’s decision to close the plant at the end of next year and lay off more than 2,500 workers. Those two don’t agree on much, but in this case they seem to be of one mind that it’s all about the global marketplace and governments can’t be expected to do more than help workers through a painful but inevitable “transition.”

Unifor Local 222 held a news conference in reaction to news that GM will cease vehicle production in Oshawa in 2019.
Unifor Local 222 held a news conference in reaction to news that GM will cease vehicle production in Oshawa in 2019.  (Ryan Pfeiffer/Metroland / Toronto Star)

Donald Trump has a different idea, and for once he may be right. GM is also closing four auto plants in the United States, and the president was quick to point out that U.S. taxpayers have helped the company through hard times and deserve better treatment than seeing thousands more jobs sent to Mexico or China.

Canadian taxpayers did the same at the time of the 2008-09 financial crisis. They bailed out GM and Chrysler to the tune of $ 10.8 billion, and eventually came up short by about $ 3.7 billion on the deal.

Strictly speaking, GM doesn’t owe Canada or Oshawa anything because of that. There’s no legal obligation to keep the production lines there going. The company has a right to make its own business decisions.

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But the auto industry, like any big international industry, is highly political. It may have decided that the kind of old-style sedans it assembles in Oshawa just aren’t selling anymore. But it still has to decide where it will do the research and development for the new electric and self-driving vehicles of the future, and where those cars will be produced.

That’s where pressure from political leaders like Trump may make a difference. And it’s why Trudeau and Ford shouldn’t be so quick to hoist the white flag and accept GM’s announcement as its final word. They don’t have to copy Trump’s style (no one could), but they should learn from his unabashed advocacy for his own workers.

There’s no reason for either Ottawa or Ontario to try and change GM’s mind with government cash. The company is now highly profitable (it made some $ 6 billion so far this year alone) and it isn’t asking for subsidies.

But there are good business reasons why southern Ontario should continue to benefit from substantial investment by GM, and both Trudeau and Ford should not be shy about pointing this out.

The Oshawa plant itself can handle both sedans and light trucks, including pickup trucks that consumers want and are highly profitable for the company. Is there really no reason why GM shouldn’t keep making those models there?

And aside from keeping the assembly lines going, there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done in preparing the ground for the cars of the future.

GM has already recognized that this region has the talent and business environment for that kind of research. GM Canada has hired hundreds of engineers and others at its new Canadian Technical Centre in Markham, where it is working on self-driving technologies.

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This kind of research will be key to those clean, green, autonomous vehicles that auto makers are searching for. If GM is truly serious about going down that road it will need hundreds, even thousands, more people with all kinds of skills to figure it out. Ontario has those people, and Trudeau, Ford & Co. should lean heavily on the company to make sure this province gets a sizable chunk of that action.

That will take persistent, determined and sometimes loud advocacy. There are no guarantees of success. But meekly accepting GM’s claim that, in Ford’s words, “the ship has sailed,” is a sure guarantee of failure.

The workers of Oshawa, and the Canadian taxpayers who supported GM through tough times, deserve better.

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TORONTO STAR

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Trudeau and Ford should speak louder for GM workers