Company Town: A Critical Review of a Documentary on the Closing of the Oshawa Plant by General Motors (GM), Part One: Colin James, President of Unifor Local 222

Introduction

The documentary (https://gem.cbc.ca/media/cbc-docs-pov/s04e05?cmp=sch-company%20town)  presents the situation in Oshawa, Ontario, where General Motors (GM) decided to close its plant. GM had operated in Oshawa for  around a century. On November 16, 2018, GM announced that it was closing the plant, throwing around 2,500 direct workers out of work and affecting thousands more indirectly (through the elimination of demand for parts as well as the multiplier effect the closing would have on the demand for workers in Oshawa locally and Ontario regionally). The factory closed on December 18, 2019. 

Colin James was president of Local 222 of Unifor, the union that represented the workers at GM; Unifor is the largest Canadian union of workers in the private sector. 

Before the shutdown, we read such things as the following: 

  1. From  https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/unifor-lands-gm-truck-program-in-auto-parts-sector-621777743.html, dated May 9, 2017: 

Unifor Lands GM Truck Program in Auto Parts Sector


NEWS PROVIDED BY

Unifor 

May 09, 2017, 14:18 ET

… 

“The new contract addresses needs for the workers, the company and the community. This demonstrates the power of the union to secure a future for good jobs in Canada,” said President of Local 222 Colin James.

2. From   https://www.hrreporter.com/focus-areas/labour-relations/unifor-delivers-strike-mandate-to-lear-corporation-in-ajax-ont/296101, dated April 24, 2018: 

“Unifor is seeking to eliminate the current pay disparity in the seat-manufacturing sector,” said Colin James, Unifor local president. “It’s our hope that a strike can be avoided, but the clock is running out for the employer to come to the table with a fair offer.” [my emphasis] 

3. After the announcement by GM that it was closing the Oshawa plant, we read the following (from https://www.unifor.org/news/all-news/more-200-unifor-activists-storm-canadian-auto-show  , dated February 17, 2019 ): 

More than 200 Unifor activists storm Canadian Auto Show

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TORONTO – Visitors to the Canadian Auto Show in Toronto this weekend were greeted by Unifor members and encouraged to join Unifor’s campaign to boycott GM vehicles made in Mexico.

More than 200 workers and retirees from the Oshawa Assembly Plant, and feeder plants Lear, Inteva and other Unifor units showed up at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Saturday wearing #SaveOshawaGM t-shirts.

“I am so proud of these fearless activists who will stop at nothing in the fight to convince GM it is not too late to reverse its plans for the Oshawa plant,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor National President.

“Sell here? Build here!” chanted the group of Unifor workers and retirees, as they raised awareness in the middle of GM’s display. “We will not give up and we will not be intimidated by GM or anyone else.

That is why we held a mini rally right where GM would take notice, in the heart of the auto show,” said Colin James, President, Local 222.

Activists also handed out leaflets that explain how to support the union’s efforts to stop the closure of the Oshawa Assembly plant and save 24 thousand good Canadian jobs. [my emphasis]

Canadian consumers are urged to pledge to boycott all GM vehicles made in Mexico but signing up at SaveOshawaGM.

More photos are available here on Unifor Canada’s Facebook Album.

For more information, please contact Unifor Director of Communications Natalie Clancy at Natalie.Clancy@unifor.org or 416-707-5794 (cell).

 

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Although Mr. James does not explicitly express the view that the Oshawa jobs are “good jobs,” it is probable that he accepts such a view–given the context and the other statements that he has made. 

4. From  https://www.unifor.org/news/all-news/unifor-members-take-action-gm-headquarters-oshawa , dated  January 23, 2019  : 

“The solidarity shown today proves once again, Unifor members are united in our resistance to corporate greed,” said Colin James, President of Unifor Local 222. [my emphasis] “This union is a family. We are fiercely united in our support of one another, and of the Oshawa auto community.”

The idea of resistance to “corporate greed” sounds very radical. However, is it not in the very nature of GM, like any other private employer, to pursue–more money? Is not  The Money Circuit of Capital  an accurate description of the general purpose and movement of investment by employers? Is not capitalist greed inherent in the nature  of present society? 

What Mr. James seems to object to is not this normal greed but the apparently abnormal greed that involves the closing down of the Oshawa plant. Otherwise, why would he not have complained about “corporate greed” earlier? He apparently does not object to normal corporate greed, but only corporate greed that leads to the shutting down of factories. Indeed, in the documentary, Mr. James stated that when he found out about the closing by watching CP24, he was stunned.

To be fair to Mr. James, he might have meant that it was the way he found out that stunned him. If, however, he meant that he was stunned because of the actual closing of the factory, then it would seem that he failed to understand the nature of capitalist operations–despite being a union representative for workers who work for a capitalist organization. Closure of operations occur all the time if they are not considered sufficiently profitable. (I quit the brewery in Calgary, where I worked, in 1983. It closed down in 1994, and it remains closed to this day.) 

5. From  https://www.unifor.org/news/all-news/auto-parts-workers-hold-solidarity-rally-and-picnic-oshawa  , dated August 15, 2019: 

Auto parts workers hold solidarity rally and picnic in Oshawa

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On August 10, hundreds of members of Unifor Locals 222, 444, and 1090 as well as members of the general public, gathered at Memorial Park in Oshawa for a rally and picnic in solidarity with independent auto parts supplier workers facing plant closures and ongoing negotiations of restructuring agreements.

The family-friendly event featured live music, entertainment, and a public address from Unifor Local 222 President Colin James, Unifor Ontario Regional Director Naureen Rizvi, Oshawa Member of Provincial Parliament Jennifer French, and Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley.

“This rally brought together Unifor members, elected officials, and the public in solidarity with the 1,700 women and men who deserve fair and just severance [my emphasis] for their years of hard work and sacrifice,” said Colin James, Unifor Local 222 President. “All of us need to come together and stay strong as we use every tool available to us to get the best possible deal for auto parts supplier workers.”

We of course should not criticize any effort to obtain “the best possible deal for auto parts supplier workers”–or for other workers, for that matter. In the case of job loss, the situation can be devastating for many workers.

However, what is “fair and just severance?” Why does GM have the right to separate GM workers from the use of the factory? Is not the right of GM to do that unfair? If so, how can Mr. James talk of “fair and just severance?” Is this not to take the right of GM to make the decision to stop production (based on the criterion of profitability) as “fair and just?” Why not question this right and criticize its fairness? 

But this is just what unions fail to do. They assume that the employer-employee relation is somehow “fair and just,” and that contracts or “deals” can somehow make everything all right. Tell that to the thousands of workers, some of whom probably lost their jobs for almost two years (GM announced on November 4, 2020 that it would be reopening the plant, but the first Silverado truck rolled off the line on November 10, 2021). 

I will deal with Jerry Dias, the president of Unifor national, in another post. 

Conclusion

Employers generally have the right to shut down plants (or offices) whenever and wherever they want. You rarely–ever?–here union reps criticize this general right. Rather, they, like Colin James, only express criticism when the potentiality to close down becomes put into effect. In the meantime, they talk of “good jobs,” “fair contracts,” “decent wages” and such like rhetoric that hides on the one hand the power of employers to make decisions unilaterally–like dictators– and, on the other hand, the fact that workers are used as means for goals external to their own purposes. 

What do you think? Do you think unions in their daily operations represent the general interests of workers? Or should unions be criticized for accepting too much of the economic, political and social system? 

 

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