Oshawa stands up for workers, communities and the climate

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Image: Used with permission of Green Jobs Oshawa.

Rebecca Keetch has been an autoworker at the General Motors (GM) assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario, since 2006. GM has said it will close the plant by the end of the year. Tiffany Balducci is the president of the Durham Region Labour Council. Both are involved in Green Jobs Oshawa, a joint labour-community campaign involving workers, youth climate organizers, social justice advocates and environmentalists who have come together to push for the government to take the plant into public hands and re-tool it for environmentally sustainable, socially conscious production. Scott Neigh interviews them about their bold plan for the plant and about what they have been doing to put pressure on politicians to make it a reality.

On the one hand, it is no secret that Ontario is in the middle of a long, slow erosion of the manufacturing sector of its economy, with all of the harm that implies for workers and communities. On the other hand, it is also no secret that we are in a climate crisis that is bad and that looks to get a whole lot worse, particularly if we do not very soon take transformative action. What may be less well understood, however, is that there are things that we can do to begin addressing both issues at the same time.

Oshawa is a city of 160,000 people on the north shore of Lake Ontario, east of Toronto. Though it has long been a hub of Canada's auto industry, in recent years the auto sector in the city has been fading. Outsourcing, downsizing, reallocating production, and a range of other mechanisms by GM have cut the workforce from over 20,000 in the city at its peak in the 1980s to only 2,300 in the plant today.

When the industry was hit hard by the economic crisis in 2008, the federal and provincial governments provided GM with over $10 billion in bailouts. The bailout deal drove down wages significantly, and the company sought further concessions in later bargaining as well. And though the company is now very profitable, billions of dollars were never repaid to the government.

Then, in November 2018 -- despite the bailout, despite the many concessions made by workers -- GM announced that it would be closing its Oshawa assembly plant at the end of 2019. Reaction from workers and from the community was the mix of anger and grief that you might expect. Job action by workers, media and political campaigning by the union, and some tough negotiating convinced the company to keep a few hundred non-assembly jobs in Oshawa, though it is unclear for how long, and to provide good buyout packages for many of its workers. However, the impact on the community at large of the permanent loss of so many good jobs remains very serious.

Green Jobs Oshawa emerged concurrently with the union's efforts to challenge the closure. They argue that nationalizing the plant would allow not just Oshawa but the entire country to benefit from the existing experience and expertise of workers in Oshawa and the infrastructure that already exists in the plant, which could be re-tooled to produce electric vehicles. In particular, this could be done with an eye to the likelihood that governments and the broader public sector will be overhauling their vehicle fleets in the coming years in response to rising demands for climate action. Those vehicles could be made in Oshawa.

Through months of tireless organizing, Green Jobs Oshawa has built a solid base of support among a broad cross-section of Oshawa residents. As well, both the retirees and the active members in the union local representing workers at the plant have passed resolutions calling for its nationalization, as has the local labour council, the Ontario NDP, and other bodies.

To build broader public support, the group commissioned a detailed feasibility study, which was released in September. It found that a $1.4 to $1.9 billion investment by the government could create almost 3,000 manufacturing jobs and over 10,000 other jobs in the community, and it would start to break even by its fourth year of operation. It would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 400,000 metric tonnes by year 5. As well, it would provide a model for public intervention into the economy relevant to many other contexts that could both address the needs of working people and steer the kind of transformation that the climate crisis demands.

Image: Used with permission of Green Jobs Oshawa.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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