TORONTO — Unifor members on Wednesday morning formed a blockade outside of General Motors’ Canadian headquarters in Ontario, to protest the automaker’s plans to end production at the nearby assembly plant in Oshawa.
Unifor President Jerry Dias said the union’s members would prevent GM Canada employees from entering the building. The move is in response to GM’s plans to stop allocating products to Oshawa Assembly beyond 2019.
“GM headquarters will be down and it will stay down,” Dias said. “This is going to become a very major community initiative for us.”
David Paterson, GM Canada vice president of corporate and environmental affairs, said GM employees would work from home Wednesday and that the company’s operations would be unaffected. He estimated about 700 GM employees work at the Oshawa headquarters.
“We have the ability to work from home or at other locations, so we won’t be affected,” Paterson said. “We’ll have planned for this and have alternate arrangements.”
Unifor’s action is the latest in an escalating feud between the union and GM. Unifor has undertaken an international campaign to save the Oshawa plant, taking out advertising in Canada and the United States and staging protests that briefly halted production at the factory and at one of its nearby suppliers. GM Canada, meanwhile, has taken to social media to refute claims by Unifor that the company is moving the Oshawa jobs to Mexico and has repeatedly urged the union to work with it on securing new jobs for workers.
The war of words continued on Wednesday afternoon. During a news conference at the blockade, Dias said Unifor’s actions would happen on an ongoing basis at different GM facilities and suppliers.
“What is happening here today is going to happen tomorrow,” Dias said “It’s going to happen on Friday. It’s going to happen at different locations, General Motors. We’re going to see you at the [Detroit] auto show that runs until the 27th. The simple reality is that we’re not going to stop.”
Dias said Unifor's actions would not include an outright boycott of all GM products.
"I'll never call for an outright boycott," Dias said. "Our members in Ingersoll make the incredible Equinox. Our members that work in St. Catharines provide powertrains for so many different vehicles that are sold in the United States.
"But I have a real problem with the Mexican vehicles that GM thinks it can just dump on the Canadian and U.S. market. I'll leave it at that."
In an interview following Dias’ press conference, Paterson downplayed the significance of the blockade and said he “felt bad” for Unifor members who have stood in cold, snowy and rainy conditions.
“There’s nobody in the building today,” he said. “Basically, it’s a protest outside an empty building. I think the urgency, given that, is probably overstated.”
Paterson said GM Canada considers Unifor’s blockade to be illegal, and the automaker could consider taking legal action in response. He said GM has asked local police to stop protesters from blocking the road to the headquarters, though he was unaware as of Wednesday afternoon if the company had filed for an injunction.
“I believe this is an illegal action, so we’ll see how long they’re there,” Paterson said. “I honestly don’t know what our legal staff will do on that, but I presume from experience where Unifor has done this before, generally it’s agreed it’s an illegal action. In past instances, where they’ve done this before, there have been injunctions that have been secured.
An Ontario Superior Court judge ruled in 2008 that a nearly two-week blockade of GM Canada’s headquarters by the Canadian Auto Workers, a predecessor of Unifor’s, that year was illegal. That blockade was in response to GM announcing that it would close its Oshawa truck assembly plant, which would shutter in 2009.
“We’ve been saying for several weeks that we would like the union to sit down and discuss the packages that will be made for affected workers at the Oshawa plant over the next year,” Paterson said. “Until these types of actions are done, that’s not really possible until Unifor is ready to come to the table.”
‘IT’S GOING TO GET UGLY’
Dias said the blockade would be a sustained effort, lasting beyond Wednesday and again threatened to escalate Unifor’s battle with GM.
“It’s going to get ugly and it is going to get ugly very quickly,” Dias said. “The bottom line is we’re not going away.”
Dias said he was set to meet Wednesday morning with officials in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office to discuss the Oshawa plant. He said he would urge the federal government to get more involved in its fight with GM and said he ultimately wants a meeting between himself, Trudeau and GM CEO Mary Barra.
“I’m looking to get the federal government engaged immediately,” Dias said. “It’s past time.”
Barra met with Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development, in Detroit last week. Bains said he urged GM to reverse course on its Oshawa plans, though Barra said the decision was final.
A Unifor spokeswoman said non-GM employees who work at the company’s Canadian headquarters will be allowed in by union members. Paterson said non-GM tenants of the building include Ontario Power Generation Inc. and cafeteria services.
Oshawa Assembly is one of three North American assembly plants GM plans to stop allocating production to in 2019 as part of a larger corporate restructuring. Oshawa builds the Cadillac XTS and Chevrolet Impala sedans and does final assembly on previous-generation Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup bodies shipped from the United States.