GM adding jobs in Canada, but Oshawa plant in jeopardy

The future GM's Oshawa plant is among the top concerns of Unifor, which is preparing to enter into contract negotiations later this summer with the Detroit Three.

Brent Snavely
Detroit Free Press

General Motors said today it will hire as many as 700 new engineers near Toronto, Canada, over the next several years, but the infusion of fresh talent does not mean the company is committing to the future of its Oshawa, Ontario, assembly plant.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne pose as they plug in a 2017 Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle before making an announcement at the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ontario, on Friday, June 10, 2016. General Motors announced they will add at least 700 engineering, software development and urban mobility jobs at three sites in Canada.

The future of that plant is among the top concerns of Unifor, formerly the Canadian Auto Workers, which is preparing to enter into contract negotiations later this summer with the Detroit Three. Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union, represents more than 310,000 workers, including 23,000 auto workers.

Unifor has said its top priority this year is to secure commitments from automakers to invest in Canadian plants and create or retain automotive jobs in the country in the wake of high-profile losses. However, its leaders also will be under pressure from their members to win wage increases and a faster pathway to the top wage.

“This is an important boost to Canada’s auto industry,” Unifor National President Jerry Dias said in a statement. “The creation of 1,000 engineering jobs is excellent news; however the spin-off benefits of R&D positions are far smaller than an investment in the Oshawa assembly operation, which is very much in jeopardy with no production scheduled beyond 2017.”

GM cut 1,000 jobs and a shift at the Oshawa plant’s flex line last year when it moved production of the Chevrolet Camaro to the Lansing Grand River plant. GM also operates a two-shift flex line at the plant that builds the Buick Regal, an older version of the Chevy Impala and Cadillac XTS, but production those cars also are scheduled to end or be moved elsewhere.

Steve Carlisle, president and managing director of General Motors Canada, said the decision-making process on the plant's future is on a separate track from the decision to expand its research and development presence in Canada and depends on the outcome of contract negotiations.

"We are all working in the same direction," Carlisle said at the plant today. "We all want the same thing, so its incumbent on us to put the best possible foot forward, whether it’s the core economics, or policy issues."

Carisle and other GM executives announced plans today to expand its engineering and software work in Canada by adding about 700 jobs to the 300 it has there now. Some of the new employees will work the Canadian Technical Centre, a new name for what was the Oshawa Tech Centre.

GM also plans to establish a new automotive software development center in nearby Markham, Ontario, and will invest $10 million to overhaul its Kapuskasing Cold Weather testing center.

The new jobs will be focused on developing new technology in three areas: Active safety and vehicle dynamics, infotainment and connected vehicles and autonomous vehicle safety and controls.

The decision to create the new jobs is part of GM's drive to stay several trends in the global automotive industry that are evolving quickly, said Mark Reuss, GM's executive vice president and head of global product development.

Reuss noted that GM recently made an investments in ride-sharing company Lyft and acquired Silicon Valley tech firm developer Cruise Automation.

"The industry is on the cusp of an exciting transformation and we are indeed going electric, connected, autonomous and shared," Reuss said. "But that really means that we need a lot of innovative thinking and that comes from a vibrant, diverse and highly educated workforce."

Reuss said GM picked Ontario because of the innovative work that is being done at several of its university and the government's commitment to partnering with industry to support the development of technology.

Still, Reuss said the commitment to add engineering jobs should not be connected to the future of the Oshawa plant.

"What we are doing and talking about here today is really the future of the automobile globally," Reuss said. "I don’t think what we are talking about here today is directly related to the manufacturing footprint (in Canada).

Contact Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or Follow him on Twitter @BrentSnavely.