It’s no secret that GM has steadily moved operations to Mexico. It’s not difficult to find out why the jobs went south. In 2017, Mexican assembly plant workers were paid around $2.70 an hour, about 10 per cent of what workers with full seniority earn at Canadian and American plants. Photo courtesy of Tino Rossini/Flickr

Cathy Majtenyi: Closure of Oshawa GM plant is a wake-up call

By 
  • December 13, 2018

It’s a huge blow to the more than 2,500 workers, their families, the city of Oshawa and communities across Ontario. The closure of General Motors by the end of 2019 rips at the heart of generations of families with ties to the province’s auto manufacturing glory days.

It’s a shock, but not a surprise, that GM announced such a move. Looking at the wider environment, three trends stand out as contributing to this closure, and all three reflect trends the Church has long challenged us to resist.

First is our tendency to allow our unfettered wants to dictate what we buy and how we lead our lives without regard to the world around us, a central theme in the Pope Francis encyclical Laudato Si’

GM’s customers prefer SUVs, crossovers and trucks over the more conventional cars produced at the Oshawa plant, hence the justification for shifting operations away from Oshawa.

Many studies have shown that gas-guzzling SUVs emit more carbon dioxide than conventional cars. Same with pick-up trucks. Carbon dioxide is among the greenhouse gasses associated with climate change. The transportation sector is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. for the second year running. 

Laudato Si’ is full of exhortations of how God calls us to take care of our “common home,” which requires us “to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” So do we really need to drive an SUV or truck — outside of professions or situations that require such specialized vehicles on a regular basis — when a smaller, more fuel-efficient car will get us from Point A to Point B?

The second trend relates to the practice of multinational corporations of relocating operations to countries where labour is cheap and worker protections are lax or non-existent. Pope Benedict’s Caritas In Veritate spells out the dire implications: “These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State.”

It’s no secret that GM has steadily moved operations to Mexico. It’s not difficult to find out why the jobs went south. In 2017, Mexican assembly plant workers were paid around $2.70 an hour, about 10 per cent of what workers with full seniority earn at Canadian and American plants. 

Thankfully, the new free trade deal that Canada, the U.S. and Mexico signed at the end of November has a provision that could raise Mexican workers’ wages to $16 an hour. 

A third trend is the increasing use of automation, both by employers and consumers. 

GM says it plans to double resources for programs to create electric and autonomous vehicles. These are much cleaner for the environment, but they are also more problematic. A 2017 report estimates that more than four million jobs will be lost in the U.S. if autonomous vehicle technology is implemented in a short period of time. 

On the shop floor, GM and other car manufacturers are embracing a range of technologies  that have the potential to reduce or almost eliminate factory workforces in the long run. 

Pope John Paul II foresaw this as early as 1981 when he issued a warning in Laborem Exercens: “… technology can cease to be man’s ally and become almost his enemy, as when the mechanization of work ‘supplants’ him… when it deprives many workers of their previous employment, or when, through exalting the machine, it reduces man to the status of its slave.”

GM’s departure from Oshawa is a vivid wake-up call on what happens when we don’t question — and strive to mitigate or eliminate — the impacts of our purchasing choices, corporate practices and development of widespread automation.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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