GM Closures — What’s Next?

Against the Current, No. 198, January/February 2019

Dianne Feeley

GENERAL MOTORS CAUGHT U.S. and Canadian autoworkers, their communities and their unions by surprise when GM announced five plant closings by the end of 2019 and projected closing two more, but undisclosed, plants internationally. The year 2018 is slated to be one of GM’s most profitable, with $3.2 billion’s worth of net profits in the third quarter alone.

In violation of protocol, GM publicly announced that these plants would be idled (meaning no product assigned) even before corporate officials talked to the workforce or union officers.

After workers in the Oshawa, Ontario plant received the news, they walked out, protesting the decision in the city’s streets. They, like the workers in U.S. plants, thought the concessions they’d made in their current contract had won them secure employment for its duration.

U.S. autoworkers, whose contract will end September 2019, were in the process of submitting resolutions for their upcoming Bargaining Council. The mood was to end the tiered division of workers imposed with the GM/Chrysler bailout, along with the growth of permanent “temporaries” and outsourcing work areas such as kitting and material handling.

GM’s announcement, threatening 14,000 blue-collar and white-collar jobs, can be seen as the first, intimidating move before the round of contract negotiations.

With auto industry’s high multiplier effect, this would mean at least a 50,000 job loss. Given the U.S. and Canadian governments’ bailout of GM a decade ago at a $15 billion loss to taxpayers, that’s a devastating and arrogant decision.

Will union officials (UNIFOR in Canada, the UAW in the United States) attempt to keep a plant open if more concessions are offered? Since both local union officials and politicians have already stated that they will do anything to keep their plant open, will workers in one plant be used to out compete workers in another?

Whipsawing the GM plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan against a sister local in Arlington, Texas resulted in shutting down the Michigan assembly plant even though both locals were represented by the UAW.

GM’s CEO Mary Barra maintains the plants must be idled to develop the right “skill set” for the future. She speaks of the need to develop an all-electric car and of self-driving vehicles, but conveniently never mentions what ending reliance on fossil fuels requires for transportation — the building of a mass transit system throughout North America.

This corporate decision, just like decisions the auto industry has made over the years that jeopardize the health and safety of its work force as well as those who buy their product (most recently faulty ignition switches and air bags), is irresponsible and must be stopped.

The particular case of the GM Detroit-Hamtramck plant starkly reveals the destructive path that allows GM to be in the driver’s seat. As GM decided to close down their west side Cadillac plant, the corporation demanded a huge expanse of land or it would exit Detroit.

In what was the first time a city condemned an area under the “eminent domain” provision to turn it over to a corporation, GM agreed to stay. A working-class neighborhood, known as Poletown, was destroyed. It echoed the earlier destruction of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom — Black working-class neighborhoods — cleared for highways.

The skill set does exist in these plants to create what needs to be built for the 21st century. Can workers organize to make this demand? Can Detroit use eminent domain to take over and retool the plant to manufacture electric buses? Can the unions who currently represent them, and the communities that share their fate, demand the retooling that can sweep aside the fossil fuel industry and open the way to the future?

January-February 2019, ATC 198