Premier Doug Ford is under fire for pushing for extra unemployment insurance benefits instead of fighting for jobs as General Motors plans to shut its Oshawa auto assembly operations next year.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they get back on their feet,” Ford said Monday after the automaker officially announced that 2,600 workers will lose their paycheques next December.
“We’re doing everything we can.”
The pledge came after Ford had a telephone call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and asked for a five-week extension to jobless benefits and a more concerted push to get the Trump administration to drop punitive steel tariffs.
Critics said they expected more from the new premier, who has been touting the “Open for Business” signs his Progressive Conservative government is erecting at border crossings but was blindsided by GM’s move.
Opposition parties said Ontario needs a strategy to attract the auto industry jobs of the future building electric and autonomous vehicles amid fears what happened at GM Oshawa could hit other auto assembly plants in the province like Ford in Oakville and Chrysler in Windsor.
“Gimmicks like signs on the edges of the highway … that say we’re open for business, a lot of loud talk about reducing corporate taxes obviously is not the answer here,” Horwath added.
“It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
Jerry Dias, the president of the Unifor union representing autoworkers, said he was “shocked” that Ford appears resigned to the closure and is asking Trudeau to extend unemployment insurance benefits to GM workers to 50 weeks.
“Listen, this isn’t about an extra five weeks, it’s not about an extra severance, it’s about preserving the jobs in this community…that was my message to him last night,” Dias told a news conference in Oshawa.
“When I hear the clichés about ‘I’m here for the people’ and then the first thing that happens is say we’re going to talk about an extra five weeks for EI, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Ford said he repeatedly asked GM officials in a conference call Sunday afternoon if there was anything the provincial government could do.
“The answer was no, there’s nothing. Basically, the ship has already left the dock. They didn’t ask for anything,” Ford told reporters before an emergency meeting of his MPPs to talk about the Oshawa crisis, the latest in a series of troubles to roil his fledgling government.
“We’re disappointed in GM. We supported GM as everyone remembers years ago when they were in trouble.”
In addition to pushing for extra unemployment insurance benefits, the premier is dispatching the province’s plant-closure SWAT team to Oshawa to arrange job retraining for workers and provide related assistance.
“We won’t leave until everyone is taken care of…we’ll make sure that people can stand back up on their feet.”
Ford said his message to GM employees is “I’m going to be there for you, I’m going to support you, I’m going to do everything I can, I’ll give you my cell number.”
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said those are “empty words” and joined other opposition parties in faulting the PC government for axing plans for electric vehicle charging stations, green vehicle purchase subsidies for motorists and cancelling green energy contracts.
“That sends a signal to investors that Ontario is not embracing the economy of the future,” said Green Leader Mike Schreiner, MPP for Guelph.
“We have to skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been. This better be a wake-up call to the premier to stop attacking clean economy job creators.”
Although new Economic Development Minister Todd Smith blamed “15 years of mismanagement” from the previous Liberal government for the looming closure, Ford said he is not “pointing fingers” over the GM decision.
“They didn’t mention anything about hydro rates or labour laws,” the premier acknowledged before moving in to a defence of his highway signs going up at border crossings.
“We have to tell the world we’re open for business because GM has left…it’s terrible news but we have to pick ourselves up and get back on our feet and be as positive as we can.”
The GM manufacturing complex is in the Oshawa riding held by New Democrat MPP Jennifer French, who told reporters “we’re going to fight” the decision.
The Progressive Conservative MPP for the adjacent riding of Durham, where many GM workers also live, said the news hits hard.
“We’ve made cars in Oshawa for more than 100 years…certainly this decision was a disappointing one.”
With files from Kristin Rushowy
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Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1