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Canadian GM Workers Protest To Keep Plant Open

Angry employees gathered outside GM’s Canadian head office, saying they wouldn't leave until the automaker agrees to keep its Oshawa truck assembly plant open.

OSHAWA, Ont. (CP) -- Angry General Motors employees gathered outside the company's Canadian head office early Wednesday morning, saying they wouldn't leave until the company agrees to keep its truck assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont. open.

About 100 workers arrived at GM's corporate headquarters before 9 a.m. and more still were expected to arrive throughout the day, said Chris Buckley, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union Local 222.

''We're going to stay here until General Motors reverses that decision or at the very least, until somebody in General Motors Corporation tries to justify to us why they have violated our brand new collective agreement,'' he said.

''We'll be here as long as it takes.''

The protest could be just the first step in an ongoing fight against the automaker's plans -- which will leave about 2,600 people unemployed -- although GM plant workers were being encouraged to continue working, he added.

''We are encouraging our members in the plants to continue to build cars and trucks, we are not asking our members to withdraw our services.''

The protest began as a blockade of the GM building but eventually some corporate employees were allowed to walk into work. Shortly after the business day began, however, GM decided to shut down the building and send staff home.

A spokesman for GM said the company understands the union's concerns and wasn't looking for police to immediately end the protest.

''There is a protest going on at our headquarters building and that's, frankly, understandable because this is a very tough thing for employees to go through and for the union to go through and us as well,'' said Stew Low, GM's director of communications.

Low said the company would be willing to meet with the union to explain its decision, which is a reflection of the changing market for more fuel-efficient vehicles.

''We'd love nothing better than to be continuing to build pickup trucks in great volumes but the thing that is going on in the U.S. marketplace and to a certain degree in the Canadian marketplace is consumers are moving away from big trucks to cars and smaller crossover vehicles and we're transforming to be a part of that,'' he said.

''This is a very difficult thing to go through, it's a tough decision that we've made but it's made in the context of providing customers with the kinds of vehicles that they want.''

On Tuesday, GM announced that four North American truck assembly plants -- including the one in Oshawa -- would be closed.

The company said the shutdowns were in response to ''recent developments on the global oil scene'' that have led to high gasoline prices, which represent ''a structural change, not just a cyclical change'' in consumer demand and the company's prospects.

CEO Rick Wagoner said at the annual meeting in Delaware that the Oshawa pickup truck plant east of Toronto will cease production in the third quarter of 2009 ''and we don't have plans to allocate future products'' -- meaning a probable permanent closure of the factory.

The CAW warned that the decision would not go down easily.

''This is not going to happen without a fight,'' Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove declared at a news conference.

Asked how the union would respond, he said: ''Watch us.''

Hargrove said the union wasn't ruling out anything and ''will explore all options.'' He declined to be specific, and when asked whether the options included a wildcat strike or legal action against the company, the union leader said ''everything is on the table.''

Police said Wednesday's protest was calm and under control with ''no skirmishes and nothing to talk about.''

''They're allowed to picket,'' said Durham Regional Police Sgt. Paul McCurbin.

''We don't have a problem with that.''

Tuesday's cuts are another blow to the battered manufacturing sector in Ontario and Quebec, which has been decimated by layoffs and closures in the lumber, auto assembly, textiles and auto parts sectors. A high Canadian dollar and a slump in the United States have squeezed exports in those industries and produced widespread streamlining at the so-called Big Three carmakers -- GM, Ford and Chrysler.

At GM Canada, the CAW says 2,600 face job losses as a result of the closure and noted that GM's workforce in Oshawa will be half the size it was 20 years ago, falling from 20,000 in the late 1980s to about 9,000 this year. About 5,400 people work at an adjacent car plant in Oshawa which GM will keep open and may expand with a new product.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday his government would try to recoup part of a $175-million provincial loan earlier than planned if GM was found to be violating minimum job levels specified in their agreement.