Camaro Blues

GM’s mid-December announcement that the next generation Camaro will be produced in Lansing, Michigan not in Oshawa is cause for serious reflection among Canadian autoworkers. This relocation of production is simply a corporate restructuring event where GM is consolidating its rear wheel car production in one location with the exception of the Corvette. Such restructuring events are hardly new. Recognizing this is a prerequisite for grasping its significance.

[Cartoon by Mike Constable]
In 1995 GM engaged in the same kind of restructuring in St. Catharines by closing its foundry operation employing 1800 workers and consolidating foundry operations in Defiance, Ohio. Such downsizing decisions yield big cost savings and put the boot to the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union by massively eliminating jobs. GM can easily do this knowing the free trade agreements which gutted the 1965 Auto Pact’s domestic production requirements were designed to facilitate unimpeded corporate restructuring and capital mobility.

Dash and Shock

Recognizing that corporate restructuring is intrinsic to global capitalism defines the context for this event reveals how theatrical the CAW leadership’s anger and indignation in response has been never mind their protests at being shown a lack of respect. GM similarly blindsided the CAW when announcing the foundry closure decision.

The similarities don’t end there. That decision raised serious questions about GM St. Catharines operations sustainability setting in motion their dramatic downsizing and continuing vulnerability. Likewise ending Oshawa’s Camaro production means losing nearly a third of vehicle production and endangers the remaining operations by making them more costly. This underlies the CAW demand that GM compensate for the lost Camaro production with new equivalent work.

But this demand is problematic. GM has repeatedly said it has no plans for new investments here. These statements coupled with the Camaro decision call into question GM’s commitment to its Oshawa operations. Regardless even if GM becomes receptive and allocates new work to Oshawa experience shows new work will be more capital intensive employing far fewer workers. Furthermore, experience shows GM will exact a heavy price for new replacement work. Since the mid-1990s GM has successfully demanded sweeping CAW contract concessions particularly at the local level in return for new investment.

This practice of tying new investment to contract concessions has decimated the union’s strength and gutted decades of historic collective bargaining gains. The concessionary 2012 GM – CAW collective agreements culminated this regression and weren’t even tied to new investments.

In effect the Camaro decision shows the CAW’s endless contract concessions have hardly secured a future for GM workers here and raises the spectre of more concessions. Thus the immediate question facing GM workers in Canada is whether we will give more. A larger, long term political question is posed partly by the tax dollars GM got to avoid bankruptcy and the prospect of the Canadian government eventually selling its GM stock at a loss at taxpayers’ expense. Should we not see this as reason for taking control of the means of production in order to meet human need? •

Further reading:

Bruce Allen is a former Vice-President of CAW Local 199 (now Unifor).