When I’m wrong, I’m wrong — so I’ll start off here by nibbling some crow and giving credit where it’s due. Seven months ago, in a column for Global News about General Motors’ then-just-announced decision to close the last of its assembly lines in Oshawa, I made reference to “Stein’s Law.” Coined by the American economist Herbert Stein, it states that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” GM’s Oshawa operations, I wrote then, were stopping.
I left myself a tiny bit of wiggle room — a columnist learns to do that — noting that GM could, under pressure, change its mind. But I wasn’t optimistic, and I said so on the radio program that I hosted at the time. Oshawa, as well as the GM workers and their union, needed to start preparing for a GM-less future.
I was, it turns out, slightly too pessimistic. GM is indeed shutting down its assembly lines in Oshawa by the end of the year, as planned. But it is also investing $170 million to establish a parts-manufacturing operation there. Unionized GM workers in Oshawa will make parts; their colleagues in the United States and Mexico will turn them into vehicles. This will save jobs — approximately 300. The rest of the nearly 3,000 GM employees in Oshawa will still be let go.
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Unifor, the union that represents GM’s Canadian workforce, went to bat for its people and saved a few hundred jobs. I didn’t think it could, and I’m glad I was wrong. But while it’s better than nothing, it’s only just slightly better than nothing. Jerry Dias, Unifor’s president, acknowledged as much during a press conference last week. “Am I happy today? No,” he said. “Am I happier than I was in November? Yes.”
Understanding the full impact of GM’s decline in Oshawa requires a bit of context. GM began building cars in Oshawa in 1918, after it bought out a local company. The Oshawa operation grew steadily, becoming one of GM’s largest. At its peak, in the 1980s, it employed about 23,000 workers — and companies that directly supported GM’s operations employed tens of thousands more. It was a massive enterprise, the heart not just of Oshawa, but of many surrounding communities, too.
And, by next year, it will be down to its last 300 people.
This isn’t really a surprise. In 2016, Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told the National Post, “I have not seen any professionally produced forecasts that have any continued production at Oshawa beyond 2019. This is the plant that everybody’s worried about.” Compared to GM’s other available facilities, the Oshawa plant was already an expensive place to build cars. The trend line was clear.
Still, it’s difficult to overstate how grim things look. The numbers — 23,000 becomes 2,800 becomes 300 — call to mind a Roman decimation. Though decimated colloquially means “wiped out” (or at least “drastically reduced”), in the Roman military, it had a specific meaning. When a unit was to be disciplined for a serious offence, troops were divided into groups of 10; the troops would then draw lots, and the loser from each group would be executed by his colleagues. The total size of the force would thus be reduced by 10 per cent.
What’s happened with GM is worse, statistically speaking, than a decimation. In a Roman cohort, 90 per cent of the men would survive. In Oshawa, roughly 90 per cent of GM jobs have been lost.
But enough classical military history. The practical consideration here is this: How long will a beyond-decimated GM remain the centre of Oshawa’s economy? When it employed slightly fewer than 3,000 workers, it was a major going concern (and that’s not counting those GM-adjacent non-GM jobs). The city’s own numbers, published in 2017, showed that the company was Oshawa’s single largest employer — private-sector or public- — with 4,000 workers (the figure is higher than that cited elsewhere because not every GM worker in the city was on the assembly line).
Going forward? It’s still large enough. That is, GM would still make the list of top employers, and the loss of 300 jobs at a single facility would be news anywhere in Ontario. (A few years ago, for instance, Kraft Heinz shut down food-production operations in St. Mary’s. Two hundred jobs were lost. That made the news.) But GM’s parts operation in Oshawa is getting down into rounding-error territory. The facility will employ as many people as 20 average fast-food restaurants. If there’s another “decimation” in a decade or so, you’ll have enough GM workers left to operate a Tim Hortons or two. That’s it.
And that might be the untold story of GM’s announcement last week. Yes, 300 jobs will be saved, for perhaps as long as a decade. That’s good. But the workers who remain will not be the heart of a city’s economy — they’ll be like any other employees at any medium-sized business in the Greater Toronto Area.
There’s honour in that, and dignity. But the GM era in Oshawa seems to be all but over.