GM’s announcement that it will halt production at its award-winning assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont. was hardly a surprise, though it still managed to stun the federal and Ontario governments. This was not the first time large-scale layoffs affected the GM workforce in Oshawa. Many former workers have completely dropped out of the labour market while others have re-entered the workforce in lower paying, less standardized or non-unionized service sector jobs after the retraining programs promised to them proved insufficient and underfunded.

Some felt betrayed by a company that had received generous assistance from the Canadian government in the past. Many observers saw it as an inevitable, if painful, symptom of a long-term process of industrial decay linked to impersonal corporate strategies. Others viewed GM’s decision as a function of high energy costs, imminent carbon taxes and other oppressive corporate regulations and used the closure to extol the trickle down economic logic of low taxes, deregulation and privatization that has led to repeated financial catastrophes and growing inequality.

Another perspective views the closure as an opportunity to explore, in earnest, new alternatives. The plant could be refurbished to attract investment from Tesla or other companies engaged in producing less environmentally harmful automobiles. (Ironically, GM’s desire to pursue electric vehicle production was one of the reasons it gave for the closure in the first place, but apparently it did not feel Oshawa was the right location for this transition.)

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If Toronto was willing to court Amazon (unrequited love is the most painful, we suppose) and Google can rebuild entire communities, surely we can entertain the prospect of an EV-AV hub in the Durham region.

But waiting for angel investment on a massive scale would just replicate the dependence on foreign capital that helped create this situation in the first place. Can we not do this on our own?

Yes, this would demand large-scale government intervention. But this is always a factor in economic development, regardless of neoconservative claims. Even the movement of “free” capital is facilitated by the state, which negotiates trade and investment treaties and manages monetary fundamentals through interest rate decisions. Strategizing on the basis of a democratically renewed vision of the public sector should be a priority, not a topic to be avoided at all costs.

Direct public funds to a post-carbon workforce

"These are assets to be built on, not relics of a forgotten past to be purged, @UOIT ‏profs write. #GM #Oshawa #GreenNewDeal #Canada @pstoett ‏

This is not a call for highly centralized economic planning, however. Rigid top-down bureaucratic structures strangle popular engagement and disconnect economic plans from the communities they are intended to serve. It does entail supporting infant industries in key sectors with the goal of both developing existing economic capacities and building new ones.

In Oshawa, this means looking forward rather than merely extending platitudes to workers and reproducing the same narrow strategies that have contributed to GM’s long, steady departure. The GM closure can be seen as an opportunity to repurpose a massive assembly plant while taking full advantage of the accumulated knowledge and skills of autoworkers: these are assets to be built on, not relics of a forgotten past to be purged. And such a strategy would involve drawing on the resources of surrounding educational institutions to harness new technological and administrative competencies. Of course, we are quick to point out that the University of Ontario Institute of Technology is particularly well placed to contribute to this hub-style development.

With carbon dioxide emissions soaring and the average global temperature already in excess of 1 C above pre-industrial levels, a comprehensive green agenda based on the decarbonization of the economy is as inevitable as plant closures. A Green New Deal for Oshawa, Durham, Ontario, Canada that directs public funding toward a post-carbon workforce is not an impossibility if enough stakeholders work together to make it happen.

GM’s formerly vibrant Oshawa production facility could be one hub in a much wider economic and social program aimed at retrofitting infrastructure, building solar panels and wind turbines, producing zero-carbon vehicles and providing workers with secure, well-paying jobs. This is the vision we need to work on.

Comments

Tesla Motors is having a hard time meeting the demand of its current models (S, X and 3). Plans for a semi-trailer and pickup truck await manufacturing space and capital to get the show on the road. I wonder if our federal and provincial governments could not help Tesla with tax benefits, loans or outright grants to re-tool for a truck plant.
I hope our illustrious Ministers of Environment and Industry are on it!

Would have been wise for the feds to invest $4.5 billion in electric vehicles rather than a doomed pipeline expansion. I'm sure that restructuring the Oshawa plant would have cost less than $4.5 billion.

And provide a lot more permanent jobs than a pipeline ever will.

Pickup truck electric truck would be great idea. Pickups very popular and could provide a equivalent and alternative for transportation conversion. Canadian speciality.

I can't agree more! We often talk about retraining alternatives to dying industries but really this opportunity is as much about retooling as it is about retraining. The international corporate hold on our economic well-being and by extension our social cohesion and educational bent has to be managed by our democratic and social institutions to the benefit of citizens. We just think of people now as voters, workers, students and consumers whereas those are merely activities that citizens participate in. In this particular case, those line workers or robots that fit the vehicle bodies onto the frames would not be doing much different. Dropping battery packs into the frames instead of engines does not seem to be a great change. Adding workers to lines building windmill, battery and other desirable alternatives for power generation would also be mostly modifying line work. Human workers could adapt fairly quickly.

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