Working at GM runs in Adria Wilson’s family. Her younger brother Kyle and her 58-year-old father work at the company’s Oshawa, Ontario facility. Her maternal grandfather is now retired, but used to be a GM employee and so did her uncle, who has since passed away.
Wilson, 34, has been reporting for duty there for the last eight years. She makes about $50,000 annually doing a variety of jobs. Lately, she’s in charge of driving a three-wheel cart from loaded with material and parts from her staging area to different sections of the assembly line.
She’s part of a cohort of younger workers that find themselves in a precarious position following this week’s announcement that GM plans to lay off 15,000 white collar and factory workers in Canada and the U.S.
That’s because many of them have spent years specializing at the factory, and now have skills that are so niche, they can’t easily be transferred. This is less of an issue for the older, more senior workers who make up the majority of the workforce, because many of them either qualify for a full General Motors pension or can tap into support that includes 65 percent of their base salary. Some affected workers will be placed at other plants, though many will not. That leaves the younger cohort grappling with what to do at this crossroads in their career.
“The outside public thinks it’s all old guys with mullets, tank tops and New Balance shoes. I’ve seen the memes on Facebook,” Wilson says with a laugh. “That’s the general perception of the GM worker. But it’s not the reality anymore. There’s young people. There’s people with young children. There’s a lot of different ethnicities in the plant where there never used to be. There’s a lot of women where there never used to be,” she tells VICE News.
Five plants, including the Oshawa location are slated to close. GM says it won’t be accepting new product at that site beyond 2019. All of this, according to the company, is part of a strategic shift with a new focus on autonomous and electric vehicles. The union representing the roughly 2,500 jobs in Oshawa, has pledged to fight this decision. Politicians have weighed in, including U.S. President Donald Trump who tweeted that his administration is looking at cutting all GM subsidies, including ones for electric cars.
This is cold comfort for the younger cohort at the Oshawa facility. Seniority, pay, and age separate two demographic groups at the plant — a large contingent that has been there for 25 years or more, and a younger crop that came in after a hiring freeze in 2002. There are also several hundred workers who were hired much more recently. According to Unifor, the union representing them, a “sizeable” number of workers are under the age of 35.
Thirty-year-old Matt Smith is among the latter group. He met his wife Stephanie at GM Oshawa a decade ago. She’s currently on mat leave with their 11-month-old baby. They moved into their Port Hope house two years ago, where Smith says he felt like they were just starting to get their financial footing when life began throwing them curveballs. “We’re happy to have a baby, but that meant my wife’s steady income got cut in half. Now this news, right before Christmas,” he says.
Smith says he doesn’t have a backup plan. He started working at the factory right out of high school when he was 18 years old. He was trained on several positions and filled in for people who were absent, becoming a kind of jack-of-all-trades. These days, he’s a Team Leader, managing a group of five men who work on the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks. Smith makes between $50-$60,000 a year. He describes his role as “doing whatever I can to help the team, do repairs and a bit of paperwork.”
The work is physically demanding because of the repetitive movements, but he says some days it’s mentally tough too. He describes himself as one of the people who have sacrificed their lives and bodies for the company. “This work isn’t for everybody,’ he says. “It’s not easy, it’s very strenuous on your body. We all have aches and pains in there.”
Wilson’s fascination with the men and women she works with, including Smith—aches and all—is what led her to create a project called The Faces Of GM Oshawa in 2017 (you can also see her work on Instagram). She has always been interested in photography and, with some prompting from her husband, she put to use the professional camera she had purchased.
She got special permission to shoot inside the factory, and devoted a couple of 12-hour days meeting people and snapping their portraits. She had hoped to do a follow-up in a few years time, but GM’s decision has forced her to fast-track that. Wilson has been attending night classes for a Social Justice in Photography course offered by McMaster University at her local union office. Her group will now be doing a photo essay on the plight of the workers in Oshawa.
Wilson says she considered pursuing a career in photography when she finished high school, but she worried it wouldn’t allow her to make a decent living. Instead, she took a break from school, worked for a short time in retail, then joined GM in 2011.
She says she’s hopeful the union can do something to keep the plant alive, but she’s looking into what her next career option might be… just in case. “It’s a real bummer. I’m at the point now where I need to decide what I’m going to do. A few years back, I did my Grade 12 math through correspondence because I was looking to get out of the auto industry and into a trade, maybe an imaging technician. So that’s something I’m thinking I might do. The medical field interests me but I don’t have the stomach to be a nurse.”
It’s hard to map out a whole new career when the state of your current career is still a big question mark. Even though they aren’t set in stone, GM has not let workers know the specifics of its plan for next year. Wilson has no idea if she needs to target something in January — or a year from now. “I’m a bit of a worrier. A little bit of anxiety,” she says. “I was very angry at work today. The thought of walking into that place every day for a year knowing that they don’t care about us is frustrating.”
Although many observers have said the writing has been on the wall for a while at the GM Oshawa plant, both Smith and Wilson point to the plant’s stellar performance. It has been cited for being a top employer for young people in Canada. Since 1999, that location has won more quality and productivity awards than any other GM plant. “We’re [rated] a 4 and that’s the highest rating you can get,” says Wilson. “They look quality of the vehicle, they look at throughput, the amount of repairs that need to happen after it comes off the end of the line and we’re one of the highest quality. So this does come as a surprise.”
Smith says he and his colleagues have done everything GM asked of them and more. “I hate to say that we deserve to work more than other plants but the proof is there that it’s the best plant they have. We launched this truck plant in record time, we did it in 6 months, most places take over a year. We’re awesome at it…. Them pulling out means they don’t care about the quality of the vehicle. I believe there should be a boycott of purchasing GM vehicles in Canada. They’re prioritizing money and profit.”
All photos courtesy of Adria Wilson.