Source: Eduardo Lima/Canadian Press

The news that General Motors was reopening its Oshawa plant came as a shock to many. To get additional insight, we reached out to Rebecca Keetch, a former GM Oshawa worker and rank-and-file activist within Unifor. In this interview Rebecca details that the 1,700 jobs returning to GM Oshawa have lower pay and conditions than the 2,300 lost, and that they are dependent on government handouts. The devil is definitely in the details with this new deal. As they say, when something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

On Nov. 5, a tentative agreement was reached in the early morning hours between the General Motors and Unifor bargaining teams. Later in the morning, Unifor National President Jerry Dias announced from the podium that as a part of the agreement, GM had agreed to invest up to $1.3 billion in Canadian production over the next three years. This meant that only a year after the historic closure of the Oshawa GM Assembly Plant, and the loss of 2,300 of its 2,600 jobs, production would now be slated to re-open. 

According to the agreement, the plan would see two shifts and up to 1,700 jobs returned to the plant in the first half of 2022, assembling light and heavy-duty trucks. In addition, there is a possibility of a third shift and 700 more workers being brought on at a later date, although this is not concretely laid out. Existing Unifor GM workers are to receive a 2.5 per cent wage increase in year one and year three of the three-year contract, a four per cent lump sum in year two, and annual bonuses. There are modest improvements to benefits, a reinstatement of shift and skilled trade premiums, and a reduction in the wage progression grid from 10 to eight years.

Keetch is involved with the Solidarity Movement, a rank-and-file group dedicated to advancing demands of accountability and democracy within the union. Despite lacking full contract transparency, members ratified the contract on Nov. 8 by a vote of 85 per cent. Just over a week after this vote, having had some time to reflect, we conducted the interview with Rebecca, which you will find below.  

Disclaimer: Rebecca’s views are not necessarily shared by Labour Fightback, nor are Labour Fightback’s views necessarily those of Rebecca’s. Both sets of perspectives, however, are part of a useful ongoing conversation over the way forward within the labour movement.

Donovan: Tell me a bit about yourself as a former GM worker and as a rank-and-file activist within Unifor.

Rebecca: I started at GM as a full-time temp in 2006. They called us supplemental workforce employees. And so we were kept out of the collective agreement in the seniority process for approximately 10 years. In 2016, I became a full-time seniority employee. Of course, at the same time, it was in a deeply entrenched two-tier system. I’ve been active with the local, elected to the education committee and have worked with the political action committee. I’ve been trying to push for transparency and accountability within our local in our union.

Donovan: So, of course, two weeks ago we had the big bombshell announcement that GM would be investing up to $1.3 billion to reopen the Oshawa Assembly Plant only a year after its closure. My first question to you is, what was your initial reaction to this announcement? And how has your understanding of the situation changed since then, if at all?

Rebecca: This is a significant announcement for the community and surrounding area, because of the number of jobs that are going to be coming into the community. It is important to note that these are not the same good-paying jobs that left the community. It’s an important short-term announcement. And it gives us the opportunity to gather strength and get ready to continue the fight. It was extremely disappointing that it was not electric vehicle production that was announced. GM has been very clear that they are needing these trucks, that these trucks are very, very profitable for them, and that they will be using the profit from these trucks to fund their future vision, which is autonomous, electric and connected. But that is not the work that they’ve announced for Oshawa.

Donovan: You mentioned that these are not the same jobs. That is, of the jobs that are coming back, they are not the same jobs as the jobs that were lost a year ago. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Rebecca: Of the jobs that were lost, there were approximately 2,500 people that were employed at GM. I think the seniority list is now around 500, but I’m not sure what the exact number is. So you had a lot of people who left the plant that were making around $34-$35 an hour, or if they were skilled trades making more than that. The jobs that are going to be coming back into the plant, these people will be starting at $23.67 an hour. Of the jobs that left the plant, the traditional tier one workers left with a defined benefit pension plan intact. The workers who are coming in will have a defined contribution pension plan.The company and the union have agreed to 15 per cent of the workforce being what they call full-time temporary part-time employees.

So TPTs, which is the short form, were supposed to be used for Mondays, Saturdays and Fridays in the past. And that role has been extended to full-time, up to 15 per cent of the workforce. And it’s worth noting that the supply jobs are all going to have to be filled as well. And so new contracts will have to be created for most of the workforce, I believe all of the workforce were severed. Those supplier contracts had seven-year wage progressions to get from $15 an hour to $22 or $24 an hour, so they weren’t good. So if you have people who have to start all over again now, then those contracts are likely to be lower wage as well.

Donovan: So, as far as you understand, if any of the the workers that previously worked at the assembly plant or at any of the feeder plants are rehired, they will be rehired as new employees, and they will not carry their seniority nor any of the rights that they previously enjoyed over? 

Rebecca: Correct, they will be rehired as new employees unless there was some other arrangement with their particular workforce, or workplace. So anybody from GM that took the buyout, they severed their employment relationship with GM, and will come back as a new hire.

Donovan: Wow. So one of my followup questions had been to ask, is there some sort of a devil-in-the-details aspect to this agreement? But this seems to be it. Is there anything else that has emerged? 

Rebecca: It’s a very tricky position to be in where there is no truck production or vehicle assembly at the plant right now. So in the absence of work, what Jerry Dias has been very clear about when he’s talking about this is that he believes he secured a footprint for the long term. I don’t feel that confident that this is a long-term solution. Any commitment that GM makes, according to our highlight package, reads as follows: “The General Motors of Canada Company remains committed to continuous improvement of our products and facilities, including through a collaborative and creative approach to solving business challenges together with Unifor. Therefore, during the term of this agreement, the investments described below underscore GM’s commitment to our customers and employees; and are conditional on stable demand, business and market conditions; the ability to continue producing profitably and the full execution of GMS.”

It further says that the Oshawa investment is “contingent upon the securing of incentive funding from the Canadian Federal and Ontario Provincial governments, for the resumption of vehicle assembly at the Oshawa Assembly Complex.” I believe it was in a recorded message that Jerry says that this commitment was expected to amount to approximately three years of truck production, which would of course get us into the next round of bargaining at the end of 2023.

Donovan: It does not sound like the most stable situation in terms of the long-term security of these new jobs. 

Rebecca: It’s short-term stability, but definitely not long-term stability. I suppose the argument can be made that it opens the door for future investment. But it certainly doesn’t promise future investment.

Donovan: You’ve been active and outspoken within your union for some time. Tell me about some of your activity.

Rebecca: A project that I have been working on was to get full contract disclosure ahead of the ratification vote. What happens right now is that we are given highlights of the contract, but not the actual language of the collective agreement. And [being] asked to vote on that, with the amount of information that we’re given in the highlight sheet, it is nearly impossible collectively to make an informed decision. In the UAW [United Auto Workers], General Motors workers are able to get all the actual language of the contract. And I mean, as you know, the devil is in the details, so they’re able to get that ahead of their ratification vote. And so I’ve been pushing for that. Jerry didn’t attack that directly, but he was very dismissive of it. He did not respond to the 1,500 members who signed the petition requesting full contract disclosure.

Donovan: What are the next steps for the Solidarity Movement within Unifor that has been behind the contract disclosure campaign?

Rebecca: The next step is to continue to reach out to members. I think the campaign for full contract disclosure is not going to go away. It should absolutely be continued because we’re going to have another contract in three years. There’s two ways you can do a contract. One is have it be open and inclusive throughout the bargaining process. The other way is to do it behind closed doors. But then you have to provide your membership with the details at the end of the process so that they can make an informed vote and know what’s going on. And right now, the process that we have is behind closed doors, through bargaining, and then we get a highlight sheet at the end of it.

Donovan: I know some unions have the practice of open bargaining, where they allow their members to sit in on the bargaining sessions with the employer. And so I think in that light the demand for members to simply know what the full details of the contract are before they vote is quite a basic demand.

Rebecca: It is. It’s very frustrating, because we have the right to make an informed decision. And you have to be able to ask questions, you have to be able to see things and have time to digest it. The union will rightfully say that they answered over 250 questions at the ratification meeting. And that is a significant number of questions. But it doesn’t give people the opportunity to collectively discuss the implications of those things. The union isn’t organizing around any of the issues, they’re not organizing around second-tier workers, or the loss of the pension, or the fact that they can’t make any gains for retirees. Then, in the absence of any of that organizing, you’re left with a whole bunch of individuals who have to try to decide just on their own, in a very short period of time with an overwhelming amount of information, what the right choice for them is.

Donovan: How do we, as rank-and-file union activists, act to create real change and even transformation within our unions, for example with respect to rediscovering some of the fighting traditions of the past democracy, and with respect to democracy and accountability within our unions?

Rebecca: I think that the membership needs to realize that they are the union. Union leadership is not the union. Union members are the union, and the membership needs to take responsibility for their role as union members. And that means holding leadership accountable. It means asking questions, it means making informed decisions. It means fighting for your rights. There’s a bit of an expectation that because you’re part of a union, the union is going to do everything for you. And that’s not how unions work and stay healthy. Unions work when the membership is fighting for themselves, and then the union structure is able to support the fight.

They’re able to provide assistance and help move that fight forward. But if the workers themselves aren’t willing to demand more or to fight back, then it becomes very difficult to make any gains. The other thing is that we have to think bigger. We can’t limit ourselves to fighting within a rigged system. The structure with private sector unions in dealing with multinational corporations is such that we cannot possibly win if we are going to just try to play by their rules. We have to try to change the game. If we aren’t thinking bigger and better and fighting for what we believe in, then it’s just going to be like banging your head against the wall over and over and over again.

Donovan: I totally agree. Getting union members to realize that they are the union, and the union goes as they go, I think that that’s certainly an important first step. And then I think you’ve also identified a second step, which is to start looking at the larger realities outside of the shop floor, particularly in terms of ownership. We can talk about it in terms of going from private to public ownership, and how that might actually happen, for example through nationalization or expropriation. But at the end of the day, it is a question of ownership, because ultimately you cannot control what you do not own. What do you think of this?

Rebecca: I think that when we talk about nationalization and worker ownership, we have to redefine what all of that means. It doesn’t work to just say we’ll get rid of the GM owners and replace them with worker owners, and we’ll build cars and compete with other worker-owned car companies. Worker ownership or nationalization on its own isn’t going to provide the scope of solution that we need. And so I find myself hesitant to try to focus on that aspect of the solution. Because it has to be a broader, more foundational shift in how we do things. Does that make any sense to you?

Donovan: It totally makes sense. It’s the sort of answer that leads to more questions, questions about the ownership of not just one company, but of ownership across an entire economy within a country, and then right across the world really, because as we know capitalism is a global system. And so if we’re talking about nationalizing just one plant, about establishing an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism, then I think all history has shown us that eventually these worker owners, despite having the best intentions, will be forced to compete with other capitalists, and will eventually start looking like those capitalists themselves in the long run.

Rebecca: It doesn’t change the system just to have worker ownership. It just changes the owners. That’s why when we get into this type of discussion, I have a hard time saying—to just say, “Yes that’s the answer.” It’s one small component of the answer.

Donovan: From the perspective of Labour Fightback, we always point out the need to connect this question to the broader question of ownership and control over the commanding heights of the economy. Nationalizing one company ultimately will not be effective unless it’s connected to a much broader and bigger movement for nationalization and democratic workers’ control over the entire commanding heights of the economy. And that really is a revolutionary set of demands that go beyond the immediate context of this workplace or that workplace. It becomes a question of replacing capitalism with socialism as a whole. I’m not sure if you agree with that, but that’s how we view it from our perspective.

Rebecca: When I’m thinking about this, I think about the issues with effective and meaningful democracy. We need to figure out how to do democracy properly. Getting the proper structures in place are the things I worry about ahead of talking about things like nationalization more broadly.

Donovan: I hear you, we still have a long way to go before we get there [laughter]. Do you consider yourself a socialist trade unionist?

Rebecca: I think that it would be impossible for me to deny that [laughter]. Even if I wanted to say that I wasn’t I don’t think that it would hold water [more laughter].

Donovan: Thank you for your time!

Based on the insight that Rebecca was able to provide, those of us in Labour Fightback believe that future struggle of GM workers must focus on the complete elimination of the tiered wage grid and pension system. This means that we advocate these workers demand the top rate of $35-$37 be granted to all those rehired, along with defined benefit pensions and recognition of past seniority previously accumulated. Whether or not it was consciously planned all along, GM will clearly benefit from the laying off of thousands of workers at full rate, only to rehire them two years later at $23.67/hour on insecure pensions. If “offshoring” can be described as the process of relocating capitalist production to lower-wage jurisdictions, we will have to discover a new term to describe this process of reopening previously shuttered production at lower wages at the same location.

These workers will of course eventually reach full rate after eight years of advancement on the wage grid; however, what guarantees are there that production will continue beyond the current three-year contract? Or that these proposed investments will even materialize in the first place? As the agreement itself states, the investments are “conditional on stable demand, business and market conditions; the ability to continue producing profitably (…) and contingent upon the securing of incentive funding from the Canadian Federal and Ontario Provincial governments.” So, in other words, it appears that GM is yet again demanding more corporate welfare for its already-profitable production, with the not-so-veiled threat of withdrawing its own promised investment if the cash does not materialize. 
We reject this corporate blackmail, and instead demand the nationalization of the re-opened GM Oshawa Assembly Plant without compensation under democratic workers’ control. If this is to be maintained, however, it must be linked to a broader program for the nationalization of the whole of GM and the auto sector, as the first step to expropriating the top 150 Canadian banks and corporations. Working class people have paid for these corporations 100 times over when you consider the decades of corporate welfare, tax cuts, tax evasion, wage theft, and other forms of cheating. Only a democratically planned socialist economy can genuinely protect the jobs and livelihoods of workers at GM, or anywhere else.