Jerry Dias, lead singer with the Unifor All-Star Canadian Autoworker Union Band, landed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit Monday with another stellar performance. Dias sang variations of his biggest hits of the season: “Closure Is Not An Option,” “We Are Not Going Anywhere,” “Save Oshawa GM,” “GM Corporate Greed” and “Mary Barra Is Getting Rich On The Backs Of Auto Workers.”
Nobody does angry union leader better than Dias. In a charged media conference Tuesday, he stopped an inch short of calling for a Canadian boycott of GM products, at least for now, warning instead that he planned daily events until the automaker backed down on its plans. As a sample, the union orchestrated a shutdown Tuesday of a plant that supplies GM’s Oshawa facility with parts. More is coming, said Dias.
While it was a fine performance, it’s hard to see what Unifor’s national president is hoping to achieve. Since General Motors announced in November that its Oshawa assembly plant would be closing next year, displacing 2,600 union members, Dias has ratcheted up his demands and his promises to a level that exceed the possible.
By all accounts, the global auto industry is grinding through another one of its cyclical production/design/technology crises, a routine shakeup in which competing international automakers reorganize and retrench, merge and collaborate, in a constant battle for shares of an increasingly globalized and dynamic market.
Auto sales are slumping and the industry is abuzz with talk of new muscle cars and disruptive electric and other technologies. On the eve of the Detroit show, Ford announced European plant closures as part of a US$14-billion cost-saving plan and that it is also striking a new partnership with Volkswagen. And the maker of Jaguar is cutting thousands of white-collar jobs. Meanwhile, GM recently announced a new electric Cadillac. And a Chinese carmaker plans to sell an electric vehicle in the United States.
Dias has always come across as a tough and savvy leader, but his declarations of war against GM over the loss of 2,600 jobs at the Oshawa plant have him running a small-town campaign using big-city rhetoric against revolutionary global economic and business forces that are way beyond his ability to influence.
The Oshawa job losses are small relative to the scale of the economy. Statistics Canada estimates that about six per cent of employed Canadians — 1.1 million workers — are laid off every year across the economy, from restaurants that go out of business to ketchup-makers that leave town. An estimated 133,000 jobs have recently disappeared in the oil industry.
Through press conferences, staged events, short-term walkouts, meetings in Detroit with GM executives, sessions with politicians and newspaper ad campaigns, Dias has raised the stakes so high he cannot possibly win — unless he has an achievable objective that hasn’t yet been revealed.
Consider these statements and claims on the theme that Unifor will not allow the Oshawa plant to close, many reiterated by Dias this week:
— “I am confident we will win a secure future for Oshawa.”
— “This campaign will escalate. It will not die down.”
— “It’s about corporate greed.”
— “GM has picked a fight with all Canadians.”
— “We are not going anywhere.”
— “General Motors has to be feeling the heat because consumers are telling them enough is enough.”
— “There will be a variety of steps taken to get General Motors’ attention.”
— “People make bad decisions everyday and then change their minds.”
Under current circumstances, however, there are no obvious reasons for GM CEO Mary Barra to change her mind on Oshawa, the only Canadian factory among five to be closed as GM undergoes what has been described as the corporation’s biggest restructuring since the 2008 bailout crisis. GM has also stopped producing cars in Europe and Barra endured the wrath of Donald Trump for her plans to shut American plants in Michigan, Ohio and Maryland, part of her plan to eliminate 15,000 positions. Would she really cave to Dias in Canada over 2,600 jobs?
There is always the possibility that politicians in Ottawa and Ontario will, as is their habit, come forward to subsidize the rehabilitation of the massive Oshawa facility. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has in the past seemed disinclined to join Dias’ campaign, although Dias now says that after a meeting with the premier on Monday he believes Ford is coming around.
Would Mary Barra really cave to Dias in Canada over 2,600 jobs?
The looming federal election might prompt the Trudeau government to rescue Dias. Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains also met with Dias in Detroit and said “all options are on the table” for trying to get GM to stay in Oshawa. “This is really about the workers. This is about GM having a long-term future in Oshawa,” said Bains.
But a bailout of Oshawa under current industry conditions might be a hard political sell. GM’s union workers in Oshawa are entitled to significant financial benefits when the plant closes, according to the company. Half of the laid-off workers are entitled to $4,000-a-month pensions, plus lump sum payments and $20,000 new-car vouchers. The company has also committed to funding retraining of non-pensionable workers as they search for other work in the region.
Barra appears to be reorganizing and repositioning GM in a way that will allow it to continue as a profitable corporation in a tumultuous industry. Dias keeps portraying her as a greedy CEO getting rich off rising GM shares at the expense of laid-off workers. It’s an old and familiar union chant, but there is little evidence Canadians and their politicians are convinced that the closure of one more auto assembly line is a national crisis.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column contained an editing error in describing the ownership of Jaguar. The column has been updated.