Green Jobs Oshawa
Emerging out of the 2019 closure of Oshawa, a group of workers laid off or retired as a result of the GM closure joined community activists to establish Green Jobs Oshawa. It challenged both GM’s action and the union response. That challenge led Jerry Dias to decry, without directly naming Green Jobs Oshawa, his displeasure with its criticism. His critics, he dismissively proclaimed, were “naysayers.” They were “impractical” and “unrealistic.” They were unengaged “textbook socialists.” (See particularly the CBC film on the closure, Company Town, and the press conference announcing the new investment in Oshawa.)
Green Jobs Oshawa, for its part, took this attention as praise. It had, with few resources, done all it could to get the closure in the public eye and to expose GM. It commissioned a highly respected feasibility study to document an alternative: the possibility of assembling fleet vehicles for various government departments and agencies.
GJO organized forums and educationals and got sympathetic stories into the media. And knowing that good ideas were not enough, it worked to build support among auto workers at both GM and its related suppliers. It established relationships with other unions, including public-sector unions. It developed links to communities across the country as well as with sympathetic environmental groups. And it is now looking to win a core of labor councils in establishing conversion committees that would prepare for the closures or massive layoffs that every community will, at one point or another, also confront.
Far from being disengaged from the reality of what was happening to workers, Green Jobs Oshawa highlighted the chaos and stress in the lives of GM workers as the vagaries of the market and corporate profit decisions pressured workers to make decisions (like severing their relationship to GM) that many would later regret. This was all the more destructive in the parts sector, where the reopening of plants to supply GM may not happen and where the employers involved may not include the presence of basic union standards.
Some cynics see all this as part of a conscious corporate plan that was anticipated back in 2016. If, as is more likely, GM didn’t foresee the need to return to Oshawa, what do we make — as one parts worker put it — of an economic system that puts workers through hell, while production ends up where it was a few years ago and the uncertainties continue on?
It was Green Jobs Oshawa’s broaching of the larger, socialist-inspired questions about thinking beyond GM that seemed to especially irk Unifor’s leadership. GJO supported the new auto investments but also emphasized moving beyond strategies that depended on being competitive with China, Mexico, or the United States. It raised the notions, noted earlier, of converting facilities that may not have been profitable but represented socially productive possibilities, linking industrial restructuring to the environment, and tying both to the need for public ownership and democratic planning.
Such issues are indeed “impractical” if the alternatives are restricted to working within the capitalist rules of the game. But surely questions need to be raised, in spite of the recent auto investments, about whether what has been proven to be especially impractical, in Canada and elsewhere, is continuing on a trajectory that has left workers ever more dependent on the very corporations and economic structures that have steadily undermined their lives. It’s been the refusal of many unions to think in more ambitious and more radical terms, and their lack of confidence in the potential of their members to rise to the occasion if given the information, analysis, and structures through which to struggle, that is at the core of the current crisis in trade unionism.
Thinking bigger has for some time now been critical to even winning the smaller battles. Accepting the confined options that are now described as an unchangeable “reality” has led to a downward spiral of lowered expectations and a decay in the once-inspiring purpose and spirit of unionism. While there remain crucially important exceptions to this decline, unless such exceptions become generalized, unions will remain vulnerable to the slide of their members into the kind of alienated and fragmented self-preservation that was so dangerously exploited by Trump.
A spokesperson for Green Jobs Oshawa has well expressed both the sober reality and the potential facing Oshawa and the young workers about to become GM workers:
We do not feel confident that GM has a long-term plan for Oshawa, as no electric vehicle production was announced. Our community is going to be strengthened by truck production coming back. We have to use this new strength to fight for the future.