Many Canadian manufacturers are producing advancements and innovations that have the potential to help these companies — and the industry as a whole — grow and create jobs. Many governments are trying to do their part to fan any small sparks of growth, or to encourage employers to take leaps of faith to make fresh investments in their region. But for some of the traditional manufacturing regions that have been hardest hit in the recent decade, this will not be enough. Organized labour needs to participate in any potential manufacturing revival, and our governments may need to play a new role, too.
The area where I live — the Windsor-to-Woodstock corridor that follows Canada’s busiest highway — is the best case in point. The plant closures and job losses that have occurred in this region in the last decade and a half are staggering. Lower taxes will not entice the companies that have left to come back, or other companies to make major new investments. Lower electricity rates won’t do it, nor will innovation, employment or training incentives.
On my travels, I see renewal in manufacturing in some other regions of North America, but I see very little between Windsor and Woodstock. Not only that, but plant closure announcements in this region are still regular news, and good jobs are still being lost. These plant closures come from a diverse range of industries — automotive, food and beverage, medical furniture and transportation — and include companies ranging in size from thousands of workers (Ford) to hundreds (Kellogg’s and Heinz), to tens. Why was this region so hard hit, and why has it lagged in recovery?
The geographic location cannot be considered a disadvantage thanks to the proximity to major highways, nor can it be a shortage of available skilled workers in the area. The region also has strong colleges and universities, and plenty of federal and provincial job creation and support activities. The last piece of the puzzle — and a factor I feel plays a key role in the region’s issues — is the legacy effect of having had the country’s strongest concentration of private sector union presence and influence for the last 50 or so years.
I am certain that people who have worked in some of these plants for most of their lives will say that I’m way off base with this suggestion. I’m not saying it’s a “union thing,” but rather I’d suggest it is more of a “union-company working relationship thing” that deteriorated over many decades, and was never significantly reshaped, recast, reconfigured or redesigned.
We all know what happens to car companies if they keep pumping out the same models year after year, or if they produce new looking models based on the previous models’ platforms. And that’s what I think has happened here. The platforms and foundations were so strong that they were held on to for far too long. The contracts between the parties may have been adjusted and altered, but the relationship didn’t change as the times and situations did.
While southwestern Ontario remains stuck in neutral (or sometimes reverse), other parts of the continent, and even the rest of the province of Ontario, are moving forward, attracting new investment and creating new manufacturing jobs. In some cases, the region (the state, province or even county) have helped establish a basis for a new “company-worker” relationship model, and in other cases, the plants simply had a different relationship model right at the start.
There’s a provincial election in Ontario this month, and there’s a growing tension caused by the “creating jobs” and “protecting jobs” rhetoric coming from the different sides. None of this will help create, or even save, the manufacturing jobs in Ontario, because they are not pointing to the answers; they are merely illustrating the problems.
Adaptation is key to survival in all of life, and innovation is key to survival in the competitive lives of our businesses. Our company-worker relationship needs to be adaptive to survive, and innovative if we want to get ahead. The first step will be to get creative, constructive and innovative voices from all sides, aiming for the same outcome. It’s the only way to solve this critical relationship issue.
This column originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.