Century of automaking: Last GM truck rolls off Oshawa production line
After more than a century and 20 million autos, the last truck rolled off General Motors Co.’s production line in Oshawa, Ont. on Wednesday.
One week before Christmas, workers on the last shift made the last vehicle, a light duty 2019 GMC Sierra. They finished the job just over a year after the American automaker announced it would stop vehicle production in Oshawa, a decision it stood by despite a fight from Unifor Canada, the union representing the plant’s hourly employees. About 2,300 people lost their jobs at the plant.
Oshawa’s automaking roots go back to 1867, the year of Canada’s Confederation, and the founding of a carriage company by the McLaughlin family. GM has been producing vehicles at the plant since 1918, making it the company’s oldest existing assembly plant. It’s built more than 20 models since 1953.
The business survived two world wars and the Depression, and grew into one of the world’s largest auto-manufacturing facilities with tens of thousands of employees. It even survived GM’s bankruptcy. But the Oshawa assembly plant could not weather two other inexorable forces: the emergence of low-wage Mexico as an auto-making powerhouse and GM’s bet on electric vehicles.
The shutdown was part of a reorganization that trimmed excess production as auto sales softened and GM shifted resources to focus on electric and autonomous vehicles. The overhaul cut a net 11,000 workers across the company. Along with the GMC Sierra, the Oshawa plant had been making the Chevrolet Silverado pickup and the Chevrolet Impala sedan.
Starting next year, the site will be used for parts manufacturing and a test track for advanced technology vehicles. GM plans to spend $170 million to repurpose the plant. About 300 employees will continue working at the facility.
Of the affected employees, 1,600 are taking buyout packages, including 1,200 who will retire on defined benefit pensions. About 100 have transferred to GM facilities elsewhere in Ontario. Two hundred are hoping to be recalled, either in Oshawa or elsewhere in Ontario, and will receive layoff benefits in the meantime, according to Jennifer Wright, a spokeswoman with GM Canada.
The employment losses rise to about 5,000 when hundreds of temporary part-time workers are taken into account, along with over 1,000 outsourced GM jobs, and more than 1,000 supplier jobs, according to Tony Leah, a spokesman for Green Jobs Oshawa and chairman of the political action committee for Unifor Local 222. This group is lobbying the government to take over the plant and convert it to electric-vehicle production.
It’s a brutal day. There’s no way to spin this
There was no media access to the plant during its last week in operation, but Unifor Canada national president Jerry Dias said workers were dejected and frustrated when he visited the facility on Monday. While some people are walking away with great retirement packages, he said others with fewer years of service aren’t and others, including his niece and nephew, are still looking for work.
“It’s a brutal day,” Dias said. “There’s no way to spin this.”
Unifor tried to avoid this day in collective bargaining in 2016, when GM agreed to keep the facility open for the life of the contract. The union launched a massive public campaign to try to convince GM to change course and called on consumers to boycott the company. But even an ad during the expensive Super Bowl timeslot wasn’t enough.
Dias doesn’t see much of a silver lining in the 300 jobs that will remain at the facility, although he believes there’s an opportunity for that number to increase significantly in the future.
“It’s better than nothing, clearly,” he said. “But I don’t feel that somehow we were able to salvage something.”
For its part, GM says the creation of an autonomous testing track — named after Colonel Sam McLaughlin — will continue the company’s legacy in Oshawa. The automaker is also boosting its headcount of software engineers in Markham, Ont., north of Toronto.