The consequences of GM's blindside hit in Oshawa

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General Motors (GM), the largest maker of vehicles in the world, announced last week the closing of its truck plant in Oshawa. Another 2,600 workers will join the over 350,000 workers who over the past five years have lost their high quality, high-paying manufacturing jobs.

This in spite of the fact the ink has yet to dry on a collective agreement that GM signed two weeks ago with the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) stating that they would guarantee these jobs and keep the truck plant open through the life of a three-year agreement. So how does a foreign multinational come into Canada, negotiate a settlement with Canadaâe(TM)s largest private sector union, bargain away significant wage and non-wage concessions on promises of job security and then, two weeks later, close the plant they said they would not? Simple: they just do it.

GM: The highest state of bad faith bargaining

Mainstream media, political and corporate leaders seem to want to point to some high notion that GM is justified in shuttering this plant. High fuel costs are changing consumer behaviour, the high Canadian dollar makes it more expensive for Canadian labour, and the list goes on. Rarely is it mentioned in the media or political circles that GM signed a contract two weeks ago and now has blatantly violated its obligations under this contract. The media seems to have painted the CAW and its members into a corner and despite this blatant act of corporate thievery continues to exonerate GM of it illegal actions and personifies these acts as acceptable corporate decisions.

How is it that in an apparently well functioning collective bargaining and industrial relations system, such behavior is looked upon as acceptable? Is this how we want to move towards solving economic crises and corresponding adjustment and change within our economic landscape, by abandoning the collective bargaining system and the associated cultural norms wof industrial collective action?

The whole ordeal smacks of bad faith bargaining and arrogance at the highest of levels. It is not acceptable and must be fought at every level the CAW and the wider labour and progressive community can muster.

It is being suggested in the business community that an opening in the collective agreement gave GM the right to make such a plant closing decision. According to so called âeoeindustrial relations media experts,âe the contract language stipulates some auxiliary, down the road decision-making process was put in place that would allow GM an adjustment mechanism in case the sky decided to fall on the truck industry. The CAW bargained this in good faith, under the guise of trying to entice future products to be located within the plant, like the proposed more fuel efficient hybrid vehicle. The CAW seemed quite open and trustworthy with such a clause.

Then, instead of working through the accepted process, GM unilaterally decides that the sky has fallen on the truck industry and back doors the whole process. The height of bad faith bargaining, they blindside these CAW representatives and their membership and circumvent the entire adjustment process and announce the closing of this Oshawa plant. Such large dynamics as consumer demand for trucks do not in the slightest sense, of any acceptable metric, change within a two-week time frame. Given the automotive design challenges that have plagued GM, it would seem highly improbable that a corporate decision could even be made within that two- week time frame, and one must conclude that it was bad faith bargaining right from the very beginning. In pursuing such a convoluted and shortsighted strategy the brainiacs at GM have put their entire labour relations system into the highest state of mistrust.

Closure will have widespread consequences

GMâe(TM)s Canadian headquarters have been taken over by CAW members and the company is now in damage control mode. It is pretty obvious now that this outcome for GM and their workers will be far reaching and, while it started at this truck plant, it will spread like wildfire right across their entire operations. The residual effects of such misguided policy decisions by this group of corporate executives will only further aggravate their decline. Soon consumers could also view this large corporation in a more negative light, especially if these acts start having a baseline effect on quality and productivity. These highly immoral actions will raise the level of adversarialism for many years to come at GM.

The lessons and winds of change go far beyond the walls of GM and are quite dangerous. These actions could be perceived by the corporate mindset that it is now open season on workers and their unions. The motto will be, if you cannot beat them fairly at the collective bargaining table, donâe(TM)t worry, the government of Canada will now let you beat them illegally.

The CAW claims it will go through the legal process of filing bad faith bargaining charges against GM with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB). But really, what will this accomplish but a mere slap on the wrist, as GM will hold up future investment dollars as a means of circumventing any real government actions against them. It is almost a pointless exercise for the CAW to press legally at the doors of the OLRB, as the OLRB is not going to order the plant to remain open.

A blow to the whole collective bargaining system

The real damage that we are witnessing here âe" that no price tag can account for but will cost us plenty âe" is the permanent damage to the culture of our collective bargaining system. Take away the thin veneer of legalistic packaging that is our industrial relations system and you will find that what is located at its heart is trust.

These huge economic forces of compromise between corporations and workers are based on a very socially intimate level of trust that is quite delicate and difficult to manage. This trust we have had over the last 60 years was established during the âeoenew dealâe of the post-war period. It was a requisite trust to establish a functional and productive economy and has been built up over a quite lengthy period of strikes, settlements, bargaining, and a plethora of costly collective economic and social lessons. Apparently the value of this quite ephemeral but imperative and requisite social compromise is one truck plant in Oshawa.

Maybe this is the dawn of the âeoenew,âe âeoenew dealâe , and if that is the case, then hey, why canâe(TM)t labour start wildcat strikes whenever it feels the need? Why not have labour withdrawing its services when the corporations behave in a manner that labour feels calls for an immediate response? Have we not already been down this path a long time ago? Do we need to relearn these lessons? Of course, under the present system, labour would never be allowed such random acts of irresponsibility. At the first instance of a wildcat we would have workers being arrested, fined and fired.

The corporate types had better realize that, given the future and the sweeping changes that are going to be needed to make adjustments to accommodate some difficult and sometimes complicated environmental and economic needs, actions like this one by GM are unacceptable. We cannot be making these changes on the backs of workers, and that is precisely what we are witnessing here.

The precedents in this case of corporate immorality are substantial and cannot be just relegated to the sidelines as just the âeoecost of innovation.âe Corporate decision-makers cannot be treating workers and the institutions that have been set up to protect them with such blatant disrespect. The âeoenew dealâe back in the early post-war period was all about learning the lesson that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. If you want labour peace, it comes with the price of decent wages, benefits and working conditions and within a process of trust and respect.

This act is further evidence of why GM is where it is. You have to look no further than the executive boardroom at GM to find uncanny abilities to achieve short-run gain at the expense of long-term success. And to think: this boardroom rules over the largest maker of vehicles in the world and has their hands on the throat of the worldâe(TM)s ecosystems.

I wouldnâe(TM)t let them manage my ant farm.

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