Organized labour has played a significant role in shaping the economic geography of automotive investment in North America, which since the 1970s has been characterized by restructuring, closures, and a shift to non-union locations.
The industry itself has also been buffeted by offshore competition, automation, and “lean production,” factors that have reshaped the way that cars are manufactured. For many workers, deindustrialization has been a stark reality for decades, despite the ongoing centrality of automotive manufacturing in North America, as evidenced by the recent NAFTA/USMCA renegotiation triggered by Donald Trump.
Lean production refers to advances in the manufacturing production process that emphasize automation, just-in-time delivery, a reduction of waste, and the utilization of robotics to make production ever more efficient. Lean production originated with the influential Toyota Production System.
The Ontario automobile industry is one of the largest manufacturing value-added segments in the Canadian economy and three long-term developments are essential to understanding its evolution.
First, since the 1970s, there has been a significant degree of deindustrialization in the North American auto sector, a trend that took hold in Canada starting only in the 2000s. Despite numerous closures south of the border between 1968 and 1993, no Canadian auto assembly plants closed, save for the upstart Bricklin facility in New Brunswick in 1974. But, starting in the 1990s, and especially following the 2001 end of the Canada-U.S. auto pact, Canadian assembly plants underwent substantial restructuring, and many of them were shuttered.
Closures included the General Motors van plant in Scarborough in 1993, GM’s Oshawa truck plant in 2009, and Ford’s St. Thomas plant in 2011. GM’s last assembly facility was slated to close in Oshawa in 2019. Its closure would have marked a symbolic end to more than a century of auto manufacturing in Canada’s “Motor City,” home to many multigenerational GM workers.
The shuttering of these plants and many automotive-parts-and-accessories facilities contributed to tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs in manufacturing by the early 2000s. In 2005, for instance, GM employed over 10,000 workers in Oshawa. By 2019, that number had declined to less than 1,000.
Second, Unifor has played a significant role in slowing the process of deindustrialization by bargaining for the reindustrialization of existing Big Three facilities. The union’s approach, through bargaining, has included negotiating job security for its members and pushing for new product mandates at threatened facilities. This strategy was particularly important during the 2000s and 2010s as the industry faced tremendous restructuring caused by the Great Recession and the bankruptcies and temporary nationalization of GM and Chrysler.
Even when closures were announced, Unifor was able to ensure the possibility of negotiating reindustrialization. In the case of GM in Oshawa in 2019, Unifor’s leadership secured a leaner manufacturing footprint at the facility instead of a complete closure. Ultimately $1 billion was re-invested in the plant, and 3,200 hourly and salaried workers are now employed there, with women holding roughly half of the production roles. Reindustrialization, which has slowed outright deindustrialization, has been a major element of the union’s bargaining efforts.
Third, since the 2010s, the “Industry 4.0”/electric vehicle (EV) revolution has resulted in fewer jobs in the auto sector. But Unifor has continued to use bargaining to leverage EV product mandates at Big Three Ontario facilities. Paired with state incentives, a significant part of bargaining, this has resulted in a renewed, reindustrialized, and electrified auto assembly (and battery) manufacturing sector in Ontario.
In 2020, for example, the union’s bargaining with Ford played a role in securing $1.8 billion in new investment at the automaker’s Oakville Assembly Complex, including the promise of producing battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) starting in 2024, thus securing 3,000 jobs. Other examples include GM’s retooled CAMI plant in Ingersoll, which now manufactures fully electric delivery vans for the GM subsidiary Brightdrop. It is the first full-scale EV assembly facility in Canada.
Unifor also pushed for EV production at Chrysler (Stellantis) plants in Windsor and Brampton. The union’s efforts undoubtedly played a role in the company’s decision to build a new LG/Stellantis battery plant in Windsor (the largest single private-sector investment in Ontario’s history: $5 billion, and 2,500 positions). All told, these investments will result in thousands of new, and renewed, direct and indirect auto manufacturing jobs, many of them unionized.
These three developments reflect the importance of federal and provincial governments intervening in the industry, but they also highlight the essential role played by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and its successor, Unifor. The union’s bargaining of new production mandates has slowed the process of deindustrialization, and its role in securing new investment to ensure facilities and jobs remain in Canada has been key in fighting the good fight to reindustrialize the sector. In total, since 2021, the auto industry has announced Ontario investments of over $16 billion, the most significant investment wave in Canadian economic history.
In Ontario, what has emerged in the sector is a form of lean deindustrialization, a term that more accurately reflects the nature of automobile production as it operates in the twenty-first century.
As the industry shifts to an EV future, the number of automotive jobs in Ontario will likely decline overall. The simple fact is that EVs require fewer parts (think batteries versus engines). As well, production processes continue to become more efficient, automated, and roboticized. But there is also no question that the union has played a key role in securing future electric vehicle production in the province — and tens of thousands of jobs — at a time when the industry is undergoing the greatest technological transition in manufacturing history. Though the onset of lean manufacturing, further accelerated by the EV revolution, has led to a form of lean deindustrialization, a slimmer auto manufacturing sector remains a jewel of the Ontario economy, and a significant part of the province’s future.
Dimitry Anastakis teaches history at the University of Toronto.