THE BLOG
11/30/2018 15:26 EST | Updated 11/30/2018 16:08 EST

General Motors' Pullout Will Scar Cities At The Street Level

History shows how cities across the Great Lakes region, including Oshawa, could be affected by GM's mass auto plant closures.

This week General Motors announced the closure of assembly plants including Oshawa (Ont.), Lordstown (Ohio) and Detroit-Hamtramck (Mich.) by the end of 2019, eliminating 6,200 jobs in the Great Lakes manufacturing region. While the sustained lows of the DOW industrial average could indicate GM is bracing itself for the possibility of a looming recession, the upcoming closures are part of a long cycle of the manufacturing sector flexing its mobility in the interest of profits over the long-term security of workers and the cities they call home.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eduardo Lima
The General Motors car assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont., on Monday, Nov. 26 , 2018. General Motors will close its production plant in Oshawa along with four facilities in the U.S.

GM executives announced that some workers on the U.S. side of the border will be given the option to relocate to other GM facilities. Plans are underway to increase production at GM's Flint assembly where the company's line of trucks is produced. GM has suggested that Flint, formerly known as "Vehicle City," is one of the locations U.S. workers may opt for relocation. Ohio was one of the remaining Midwestern strongholds resisting anti-union legislation, though workers from the Lordstown assembly will be redirected into a right-to-work state to compete for jobs with laid-off Detroit-Hamtramck workers.

Despite the Oshawa Unifor local's collective bargaining process with GM in 2016 — resulting in concessions on pensions in exchange for long-term investments to secure jobs — Canadian workers will not be relocated to GM's two remaining Ontario sites in St. Catherines and Ingersoll.

The loss of manufacturing also takes a deep toll on the cities manufacturers leave behind.

When manufacturing jobs are relocated or eliminated, people suffer the consequences of unemployment. However, the loss of manufacturing also takes a deep toll on the cities manufacturers leave behind, producing neighbourhood disparity reflected in economic and subsequent racialized segregation and municipal disinvestment. We need only to look to the past to see how.

Auto towns: a cycle of boom and bust

Flint, once home to 220,000, offers a strong if overstated example. Today, Flint's 102,400 remaining residents have sustained decades of automotive plant closures, the Great Recession and a $5.5-billion dollar reduction in state tax revenue once directed toward civic maintenance.

Tom Williams via Getty Images
An abandoned house sits in a neighbourhood north of downtown Flint, Mich.

Worn from the impacts of automotive corporate disinvestment beginning in the 1970s and 30,000 job losses, residents of Flint have most recently endured further state disinvestment that contaminated the majority African American city's water supply. The majority of Flint residents were without safe household drinking water for upwards of four years.

Since the water crisis, residents have been effectively restricted from moving away from Flint for lack of economic mobility due to racialized income disparity, and major decreases in property values resulting from surrounding vacant and blighted homes, ill-maintained infrastructure and deeply underfunded public services. The upcoming reorganization of GM workers to the Flint truck assembly plant is indicative of the increasing precariousness of once-stable manufacturing jobs, and the 21st-century re-emergence of the company town, caught in a cycle of boom to bust, to re-occupied homes in disinvested neighbourhoods.

David Turnley via Getty Images
A "Boycott GM" sign hangs from a building in the Poletown neighbourhood of Detroit, Mich. in 1982. The community was razed to make room for a General Motors plant.

In 1979, Detroit's Chrysler-owned Dodge Main facility was shuttered. GM secured a land deal with the City of Detroit and State of Michigan and bought the plant in 1981. The purchasing agreement enacted eminent domain on 465 acres of Poletown, a densely populated neighbourhood of working-class Eastern European immigrants and African American autoworkers surrounding Dodge Main. In exchange for GM's US$1 land purchase, the city demolished 1,500 homes, 16 churches, a hospital, 144 businesses and a school.

The demolition displaced 3,500 residents to enable GM's development of the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly, coldly referred to as the Poletown Plant by residents. Razing Poletown was a futile effort that destroyed a neighbourhood in a nostalgic attempt to reproduce economic stability that was never secure to begin with.

The future of Oshawa

GM's 100 years in Oshawa without a doubt provided a foundation for the city's growth and regional economic stability within the Golden Horseshoe. Unlike Flint and Lordstown, Oshawa's diversity of manufacturing in aerospace and robotics industries, food processing and chemical production will provide relative economic stability even with the loss of GM.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
A pedestrian walks past a General Motors mural in downtown Oshawa, Ont. on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018.

Laid-off GM employees who remain in Oshawa will have to find new employment in non-automotive industries within the city or relocate for work, though the city's property market will not be implicated the way Lordstown, a strictly automotive economy, will be. To be clear, Oshawa's housing market will continue to attract attention from prospective buyers priced out of buying in Toronto. The relative economic mobility afforded to those who sell their homes in Oshawa offers no room for comparing Oshawa with the deeply devalued housing markets in Detroit or Flint.

With Oshawa's portfolio of manufacturers, the GM closures offers workers in this sector an opportunity to collectively organize for increased job security and community benefits that could secure a more equitable future for workers. In Detroit, for example, the 2016 implementation of a community benefits ordinance (CBO) ensured developers proactively negotiate with community members on terms of agreement before city council will approve development or major land sales. An Oshawa CBO agreement could include negotiating for corporate investment in public amenities, or the employment of impacted community members in a new development.

Unite auto workers across borders

These closures around the Great Lakes Region demonstrate a climate of fairweather manufacturing deeply unaccountable to organized labour and past government collaboration. The combination of state financial and corporate disinvestment that has increased unemployment and left municipal infrastructure crumbling or demolished is a devastating coupling of state and corporate partnership not to be overlooked.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
A General Motors worker holds a sign reading 'Made In Oshawa Matters' during an information meeting at Unifor Union Hall in Oshawa, Ont. on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018.

To prevent further losses in the manufacturing sector, automotive workers need to demand legislation that socializes ownership of the sector and enables the cross-border organization of workers that reflects the multinational scale of the automotive industry. This requires provincial and federal cooperation with autoworkers and related unions, and would grow our public assets through the accumulation of manufacturing facilities, technology and property. After all, modern automotive production requires a regional manufacturing sector to build a car — not a single city or country.

More from HuffPost Canada:


Although decisions made by corporations like GM tend to be multinational in scope, the expansion of North America's automotive manufacturers globally impacts workers most in their own communities, in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and overseas.

Strong government intervention that acknowledges the important role of manufacturing in building economically and socially sustainable communities is what workers need to cease the devastating effects of capital disinvestment in their cities, neighbourhoods and workplaces.

Have you been affected personally by this or another issue? Share your story on HuffPost Canada blogs. We feature the best of Canadian opinion and perspectives. Find out how to contribute here.

Also on HuffPost: