“It would be nice to know what our future holds,” Lee Healey, an employee at Brampton’s Fiat/Chrysler plant for the last 26 years, tells The Pointer. “There are young families that both husband and wife work in the plant and people are worried what their future holds. What plans they can make. What purchases they should or shouldn't make.”
A Canadian consensus has finally formed over the future of the automobile: it’s time to go electric. With the rising popularity of trendy electric vehicles (EVs) like Tesla’s Model 3, other automakers are taking notice of consumer interests, with some of the world’s largest manufacturers committing to go completely green within the next decade or so.
The energy and economic revolution will have wide-ranging implications for jobs across the country.
Thousands of autoworkers in Brampton, like Healey, are waiting to find out what this means for their future.
Doug Ford spent the early days of his premiership repeating the rhetoric of his late brother, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. He alluded to a war on the traditional car, tearing out electric charging ports at GO transit stations and cancelling a rebate on electric vehicles that made them more affordable, leading to the sales of these green vehicles plummeting.
“It only benefitted millionaires who could afford Teslas,” Ford argued at the time.
Now, the Ontario government has acknowledged the economic opportunity of going electric and the consequences of being left behind. Ottawa has decreed that only electric vehicles will be sold in Canada by 2035 to help the country reach its climate goals of being net-zero by 2050. United States President Joe Biden has set a target for half the country’s car sales to be electric by 2030.
Those pushing gas cars could be left without a market to sell to in barely a decade’s time. Ontario signalled its change of heart in October 2020 when provincial officials matched a federal contribution of $295 million to turn the Ford Motors Canada assembly line in Oakville into a hub for battery-electric vehicles.
"Any region seeking a long-term future in auto manufacturing must be adding value at every stage of the supply chain, particularly in the two technologies shaping the next generation of vehicles: zero-emissions and connected and autonomous," Vic Fedeli, Ontario minister of economic development, job creation and trade, said in a media release at the time.
In Brampton, 3,163 autoworkers are waiting to see if the Williams Parkway Chrysler plant that employs them will receive a similar investment. The massive facility spreads out across 269 acres and manufactures three gas-powered cars that look set to be phased out at the end of 2023, the same time the current union agreement that governs workers runs out.
The plant has been at the Brampton site since the 1980s – built by American Motors (AMC), then purchased by Chrysler. Much of its assembly infrastructure dates back to 2005.
“People here will have no idea what their future is,” Jim Ford, who has worked at the plant for 40 years, told The Pointer. “The employees are always kept in the dark on future plans.”
Uncertainty has peaked at the Brampton plant in recent years.
A new three-year deal for unionized workers was signed in 2020 offering short-term certainty, while a much-rumoured merger was completed in January 2021, putting the Brampton Chrysler plant under the umbrella of an auto conglomerate, Stellantis. That overarching company now includes Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati, Citroën, DS, Opel, Peugeot and Vauxhall.
“I've heard of us closing for 39 years now,” another worker commented.
Brampton will continue to make its three Chrysler products until the end of 2023. After that, if there is a plan for what comes next, it has not been communicated to the workshop floor.
“When it comes to new investment and product allocation, many factors are taken into consideration to bolster our global competitiveness and position the company for future growth,” Bradley Horn, a member of the Stellantis communications team, told The Pointer. “While we won't comment on rumor or speculation about the future of any of our facilities, we can say that Stellantis is committed to bringing consumers an electrified future, investing $35 billion through 2025 on electrification and software.”
The response leaves room for interpretation. The plant could be retooled to work on electric cars, it could move to produce a new line of gas cars or it could be closed for good.
Any closure would have major consequences for Peel and the GTA. Alongside the 3,000-plus jobs in the plant itself, a range of companies and workers are tied up in the supply chains of Chrysler and Stellantis.
Clifton Fedyk works for Lear Canada in Ajax, making seats for the Chrysler cars built in Brampton. He and around 400 others are waiting anxiously to see what happens at the Brampton plant. It will impact the job they do across two shifts every day.
“We have been told that there is no new product after 2023,” he said, referencing the period when the plant’s current models and contracts are set to expire.
The noises coming from government and the plant’s owners are deliberately vague. Communications staff are keen to emphasize that the future of the industry lies with electric cars and are equally careful not to make any specific commitments to Brampton’s 3,000-plus workers.
In an interview with Automotive News Canada this month, Ford was clearer. He said he felt he was getting “mixed messages” from Stellantis about the future and said he had told the company he did not want it to sell its plant for residential redevelopment.
“I just want someone to be honest,” he said. “If you need help, tell us, we’ll be there to support you. They’ve got to give me the straight goods here.”
The Province, which has yet to make any announcements about any future investment for the Brampton plant, says it will “continue to work closely with Stellantis” on what comes next for auto manufacturing in the city.
“Our vision is to position Ontario as a North American leader in developing and building the car of the future through emerging technologies and advanced manufacturing processes,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade told The Pointer.
They referenced a Stellantis proposal to invest $1.5 billion into its Windsor assembly plant for electric vehicles, an investment that has not necessarily reassured people working in Brampton. The confirmation of an electric future in Windsor shows the company is ready to pivot, but leaves Brampton at a disadvantage if Stellantis wants to cut costs in Canada.
Events south of the border could further complicate the situation in Brampton.
President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which now looks to be on the rocks, included a rebate incentive for electric cars built at unionized assembly lines in the United States. It is a proposal Canada has fought bitterly against, threatening Washington with retaliation and arguing the rebate would equate to a 34 percent tariff on Canadian-assembled electric vehicles. The federal government fears that the proposal would undermine efforts to build electric vehicles, especially in Ontario, where the economy is reliant on exports to customers in the United States to remain viable.
Although there is no word on which electric vehicles, if any, Brampton would manufacture, its current product illustrates how reliant Stellantis is on the U.S. market. In 2020, for example, the Dodge Charger sold 77,426 units in the U.S. compared to 1,659 in Canada. Brampton’s other two models are similarly skewed toward the American market.
Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin effectively killed the Build Back Better plan before Christmas, saying he would vote against it in a 50-50 senate. His decision means the Washington incentives on electric cars built in the U.S. are unlikely to pass, but could appear later in another form. It is an illustration of how much of Brampton’s future could be out of the hands of even Canadian politicians.
“It is so important that we’re securing not just the auto jobs we have, but many more, this should be a top priority,” Brampton East NDP MPP Gurratan Singh, whose riding includes the Brampton Chrysler plant, told The Pointer. “It is a top priority for me and the entire NDP, including right here in Brampton, where the Chrysler plant represents thousands of jobs in the auto sector. Ontario autoworkers and their families are extremely worried that their futures are hanging in the balance and that Ford is not fighting for them.”
While questions remain, contracts run until the very end of 2023. There is still time for governments on both sides of the border and Stellantis to come up with a solution to preserve vital jobs in Brampton and push Ontario’s electric car market forward.
Amongst the confusion, there is cautious optimism too.
“Considering we build the best in the corporation and we're finally in the top of the Stellantis lineup, we are hoping beyond hope that they find our plant a viable option for future electric vehicle production,” Teresa Robins, a worker at the plant, said. “But that's all we can do is hope. We know without a doubt they will dangle it like a carrot in front of our noses in the next few contracts.”
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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer