Federal, provincial politicians promise to help GM workers amid plant closure
Published Monday, November 26, 2018 11:42AM EST Last Updated Monday, November 26, 2018 6:13PM EST
Provincial and federal leaders alike conceded the futility Monday of trying to persuade General Motors to keep its Oshawa, Ont., automotive plant running beyond 2019, and instead focused on ways to ease the pain of more than 2,500 workers who stand to lose their jobs.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford insisted Monday there was nothing his government could do to talk GM into abandoning its plan to shutter the factory at the end of next year. Ford and lawmakers in Ottawa vowed to work together to help affected workers, their families and the city -- which will lose its biggest employer.
"The first thing I said was, 'What can we do?'," Ford said Monday, recalling his phone call Sunday with Travis Hester, the head of GM Canada. "He said, 'The ship has already left the dock.' "
The closure of GM's Oshawa operation, just east of Toronto, would deliver a major economic blow to the region and will be felt at the Ontario and national levels. In addition to the Oshawa plant, the automaker announced Monday it was planning to close four other plants in the United States and two overseas by the end of 2019 as part of a global restructuring that will see the company cut costs and focus more on autonomous and electric vehicles.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he told GM's global CEO Mary Barra that he was deeply disappointed about the closure and insisted his government would do everything possible to help laid-off auto employees and their families.
"Obviously, our hearts go out to the workers in the region affected," Trudeau said during question period in the House of Commons, before noting his government has invested more than $5.6 billion to help the auto industry.
Over the years, billions and billions of public dollars have provided help to the sector, which federal Industry Minister Navdeep Bains says supports 500,000 direct and indirect jobs across the country.
In 2009, during the financial crisis, the federal and Ontario governments spent a combined $13.7 billion of taxpayer money to rescue GM Canada and fellow automaker Chrysler Canada from potential bankruptcy.
Bains was asked Monday by reporters whether he thought the 2009 bailout was a mistake now that one of the companies is closing a major operation. He said the 2009 decision, made by the previous Conservative government, was made because the situation was "very dire."
Federal programs remain in place to support the auto sector. Bains pointed out the federal government's announcement last week that it would add another $800 million over five years to its strategic innovation fund, which has provided public money to companies such as Toyota.
In its search for ways to help affected auto workers, the federal government declined to get into specifics -- but insisted all options are under consideration.
"We're very disappointed and very surprised by GM's announcement that we learned about only yesterday," said Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who joined Bains at a news conference in Ottawa. "Obviously, it touches, (it) affects thousands of families in a cruel manner."
Duclos, striking a slightly more optimistic tone, insisted Ottawa wouldn't give up on efforts to persuade GM to stay in Oshawa because too much is at stake.
Ontario called on the federal government Monday to extend employment-insurance eligibility by five weeks to a maximum of 50 weeks for workers affected by the closing. Ford said the province will immediately bolster employment help and retraining measures.
Politicians from both the federal and Ontario governments, who have frequently clashed in public, made efforts Monday to show that when it comes to the GM matter they have, so far, set aside their differences.
"This is not a political issue, this is not about pointing fingers," Bains said. "This is about standing up for the automotive sector, this is about standing up for the auto workers."
Ford said he and his federal counterparts would work hand in hand.
But opposition politicians applied pressure on both governments.
At the federal level, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer demanded Parliament hold an emergency debate on the matter Monday. Scheer said the governing Liberals must immediately explain how they will help workers and protect other manufacturing jobs in Ontario.
"What we'd like to know from this government is, what is on the table? What is possible?" Scheer said in Toronto. "We do know that some of the reasons being cited, being talked about, are the rising costs of energy. We know that GM and other automakers are affected by the Liberal carbon tax, so before we even get to bailouts we could be looking at any number of other ideas."
The Conservatives have launched regular attacks against the Trudeau government's incoming carbon-tax plan. On Monday, Tory MP Pierre Poilievre urged the Liberals to put it on hold.
The federal NDP want the Liberals to create a national auto strategy to ensure product lines and manufacturing processes meet the changing needs of the industry. The party also criticized the Trudeau government's announcement last week that it plans to provide $14 billion worth of tax incentives for corporations over the next half-decade.
"We can't afford billions in tax giveaways to these large companies when those same companies are pulling up stakes and leaving people out of work," NDP MP Guy Caron said during question period.
At the provincial level, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the Ford government of giving up on trying to keep the auto jobs from leaving Oshawa. "I've never seen a government roll over so quickly and throw in the towel on good jobs in this province," Horwath said.
The union representing the Oshawa auto workers says it will put up what it calls "the fight of our lives" to keep the plant open.
"They are not closing our damn plant without one hell of a fight," Unifor national president Jerry Dias said Monday. "We are sick and tired of being pushed around. And we're not going to be pushed around ... we deserve respect."
-- with files from Paola Loriggio in Toronto