Film Reviews

Company Town Review: Compassion for Oshawa’s Auto Workers

Doc chronicles the losses made at GM plant


Company Town
(Canada, 2020)
Dir. Peter Findlay

Less than two years ago, in late November 2018, General Motors announced the closing of their automotive plant in Oshawa, ending a century-long commitment to Canadian workers and the company town that sprang up after the establishment of the auto factory. Canadians responded with anger and consternation to the news. It had only been a decade earlier that the federal and provincial governments spent billions to bail out GM and keep it in Canada. But, as the Canadian classic documentary The Corporation (2003) told us long before the bailout, you can expect nothing else from organizations like GM: corporations are psychopaths, built to make the highest profit whatever the consequences.

Peter Findlay has made a doc, Company Town, about what happened in 2019 during the last year of reasonably large operations at the GM plant. Jerry Dias, the president of the union Unifor, achieved some sort of a victory by getting GM to keep 300 workers employed in the nearly empty factory, making automotive parts. The rest of the 2300 rank and file were confirmed that they would lose their jobs just before Christmas, 2019. (If GM isn’t a psychopath, it has a huge sense of irony and a real love for black comedy.)

Brief historical aside: the Oshawa factory at its height employed 23,000 workers and was known for its capacity to “moto-vate Canada.”

Findlay’s film follows in the wake of two classic docs. Final Offer and Roger and Me. Sturla Gunnarsson’s Final Offer (1984) captured Bob White, the head of the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers, the union that was the precursor of Unifor) as he successfully fought for his union—and Canada—against GM and its own U.S. “parent organization,” the UAW (United American Auto Workers.) A fierce, foul mouthed and incredibly loyal man, White spent days and nights making sure that his union won against the American GM bosses and the Canadians who mimicked their words in Ontario.

Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) is a film classic constructed around the fact that the director/journalist/everyman “Michael” couldn’t even get an interview with General Motors CEO Roger Smith, who was intent on closing the immense car factory in Flint, Michigan. Moore’s doc still stands up because it was funny and fearless in its attack on Smith and GM, who were bland and arrogant in their dismissal of culpability in the lives lost or decimated and the city abandoned due to the strictures of capitalism. If you can make more money away from the U.S. and Canada unions, then just do it. Moore’s film, still witheringly witty, shows the consequences to Flint after GM’s abandonment. It’s gotten far worse since then in Flint—and who knows how the plant’s near-closure will affect Oshawa.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Findlay’s Company Town to Final Offer and Roger and Me. If you were to write a history of union activity in North America, these are the worst times since the Depression. It’s not Findlay’s fault that things are at their bleakest and that union leaders like Jerry Dias simply lack the wherewithal to fight the good fight against the bosses. Still, it seems fair to say that Dias lacks the grandiose vision of past leaders like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther, who made unions strong in post-World War Two North America.

Jerry Dias lacks the clout of the post-War unionists and until recently didn’t heed the vision of people like Rebecca Keetch, an auto worker who helped to create Green Jobs Oshawa. She’s a guiding light in Company Town, the one who came up with a solution to the closure of GM in Oshawa. Keetch and an increasing number of Canadians (and Americans) want electric cars to be built in order to help the environment while still making vehicles for Ontarians. Since Dias’ “victory” in saving 300 jobs, things have shifted. Prime Minister Trudeau and Ontario’s premier Doug Ford have invested nearly $600 million in Ford’s auto plant in Oakville as it transforms into producing electric vehicles. The agreement, with Dias participating, will secure over 5000 jobs in the automotive field in Ontario; among the workers will be 3000 in Oakville.

As for Company Town, Findlay follows Keetch and other members of Unifor’s Local 222, Jennifer Akkerman, Colin James, Kevin Craggs and others, as they try to deal with the loss of their jobs. There’s lots of room for character build-up but the director doesn’t move particularly well in that direction. We get an idea of the rank and file and what they’re going through, but that’s it. Denied access to the factory floor or upper management, Findlay makes do with what is offered to him. He is a compassionate director, whose feeling for others is understood throughout the film. Using a countdown format, Company Town achieves tension as it move towards the panicky/depressing final moments before the plant shuts down. We get to see good people like Akkerman, James and Craggs as they try to deal with the loss of their jobs, hopes and dreams.

Company Town is a film made on an important topic. It’s good that the historical record of what happened in Oshawa is available for all to see. But it’s fair to say that Findlay’s film won’t ever be compared to Final Offer or Roger and Me.

Company Town is available on Gem and airs Saturday October 10, 2020 at 8 PM ET/PT on CBC.