With rounds of drinks being poured at the bar next to the General Motors assembly plant in Oshawa, Canada – and a Santa Claus chatting up customers – the gathering could have been mistaken for a celebration. Instead, it marked the final day of production for the sprawling truck plant that has left thousands scrambling for jobs in the new year.
The closure in the city 31 miles north-east of Toronto comes nearly a year after GM first announced the end of the plant, as part of a broad cost-savings initiative, prompting outrage from workers, unions – and the country’s prime minister.
After final truck rolls off the assembly line, nearly 2,600 jobs at the company will disappear, as well has thousands of others tied to supply chains.
“GM demanded concessions from workers and from retirees, which they got. And they’re still leaving,” said Tony Leah, a maintenance mechanic at GM and union representative.
The union won a small victory in May, after GM agreed to keep 300 jobs at the plant and convert part of the facility into an advanced technology testing track.
But those numbers mean little for Leah.
“GM wants to tell you that they are not closing the plant, that they are transitioning it to some kind of parts production. But they are leaving 95% of that plant empty, with all of the equipment in it,” he said.
Leah is also a spokesperson for Green Jobs Oshawa, a group that has lobbied for the plant to be used for the production of electric vehicles.
In Orion Township, Michigan, GM plans to add 400 jobs as part of a push for electric vehicles. And in Lordstown, Ohio, the site of another plant closure, a buyer has purchased the facility with plans to assemble electric vehicles. “We need electric vehicles … so that we can actually do something to confront the climate crisis,” said Leah. “And it can be done here, that would be an incredible start.”
The city of 160,000 has cars and trucks in its DNA. Its junior hockey team, the Generals, gets its name from the first sponsor: General Motors. Even the home of GM Canada’s founder, Samuel McLaughlin, is a national historic site.
“My great grandparents worked here. So did my grandparents, my father and my brothers,” said Susie Boyle, who braved the cold with a handful of other residents to show her support for the workers on their final day. “If it weren’t for this plant – and the unions – Oshawa would be half of what it is today.”
Even today, the plant’s footprint is unmissable: at 10m sq ft, it was once the largest in the world. For years, it has been ranked one of the best places to work in the country.
Employees point to the plant’s numerous awards for its efficient production line – more than any other run by GM – as a clear sign they believe it should have remained open.
The loss of the plant after more than 110 years of producing vehicles has been made more difficult by the realities that the company received large government assistance.
As recently as 2009, GM Canada was on the verge of bankruptcy, saved by a last-minute, multibillion-dollar loan from the Canadian government.
“There’s been no help from the government here. None at all,” said resident Ed Vickers. “As a taxpayer, I’m really annoyed that we gave GM $10bn dollars and they just go and build another plant in Mexico.”
Workers held a raffle earlier in the week for the chance to win two of the final vehicles off the line.
For some, in the twilight of their career, the ending was bittersweet. “I made it by the skin of my teeth,” said Penny Evans, who worked at the plant for more than three decades, retiring as the closures were announced. She left her final shift carrying a bouquet of flowers from her daughter.
Ian Chapman, a retired worker, snuck onto the production line to catch a glimpse of the final trucks. “It’s amazing to see what they have there,” he said. “The robotics and everything. We used to have to do all that work by hand.” The plant of today is far removed from the 21,000 that used to work on its floors when Chapman last saw it, 22 years ago.
The future for younger workers, many of them without pensions or clear job prospects, remains unclear.
“You’re so used to seeing trucks as far as the eye can see. And then today, you look down the line, and there’s nothing. It’s just weird,” said Nathan Rudler, who was hired full-time in 2016 after spending his youth hoping to one day work at the plant. In the final months at the plant, he worked to fit tailgates on trucks. With the closure, he’s left with a mortgage and bills to pay.
“I hope GM can find it in themselves to one day come back and ramp up the Oshawa plant,” he said. “And when they do, I’ll be there.”