Canadians deserve better than misinformed battery plant debate


By Lana Payne

Originally published in the Windsor Star November 25, 2023

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The famous quote from American author and funny-man Mark Twain helps summarize the firestorm surrounding Windsor’s NextStar battery plant.

What started as an innocuous social media post from, of all groups, the Windsor Police Service has become a fire-and-brimstone level debate in this country.

It’s not everyday the police find themselves making major industrial job announcements in this country. The tweet cryptically suggested 1,600 South Koreans were coming to “work and live” in Canada, in connection to the lucrative Stellantis-LG joint venture battery plant.

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  The police tweet had me scratching my head.

Anyone who knows anything about the start-up of major industrial projects knows that it takes a lot of different people, in many different jobs, to pull these things together. It was unclear what jobs, precisely, the police referred to.

But that didn’t stop the misinformation mill from working overtime.

Rather than investigate the claim, every Tom, Dick, and Harry in this country decided to form an instant opinion on the matter.

Federal opposition critics cried bloody murder – outraged that foreign workers are coming here to take away promised Canadian jobs. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, the ringleader of this media circus, went so far as to call for a national inquiry into the matter.

All based on a tweet about jobs and the economy written by cops.

For one thing, there is nothing new about Canadian firms leaning on foreign professionals when launching new industrial projects.

Anyone who has spent half-a-second studying the auto industry knows there isn’t a single, mass-scale battery cell production facility operating in Canada. This is the reason Stellantis opted for a joint venture with LG Energy in the first place: to tap into this technical expertise.

This is no different than what happens during a new vehicle product launch. In fact, teams of U.S. workers were temporarily brought over the border to help get the GM Ingersoll plant up and running and building new EV delivery vans. This plant also received substantial government investment. No one batted an eye.

When the news first broke, our union committed to investigate. What we learned is that, yes, there will be a team of hundreds of Korean workers temporarily coming to Canada to install equipment and machinery. Not 1,600, as reported by the police.

And, no, these workers will not be working permanently in the plant. Nor will these jobs count toward the promised 2,500 direct jobs.

In an ironic twist, we’ve learned the program through which NextStar is transferring these Korean nationals into Canada – that has the Conservatives up in arms – exists only because of the Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement – an agreement negotiated and signed by the Conservatives themselves back in 2014.

Unifor was among the few groups vocally opposed to the Korea deal at the time, warning it would do further damage to an already ailing Canadian auto industry. It was another symbolic blow to an industry plagued by job losses and plant closures and close to extinction.

Now, either Poilievre and his Conservatives had a political epiphany about manufacturing jobs, or they’ve got terrible memories. Either way they are officially talking out of both sides of their mouths.

It’s embarrassing, quite frankly, the tenor of political debate on this issue.

And it’s doing a disservice to all of us who have been scratching and clawing to rebuild the auto industry into the powerhouse it once was – no thanks to harmful Conservative trade policy or economic ideology.

Yes, there are major problems in Canada with hugely exploitative migrant worker programs. These problems deserve the same degree of political passion and attention that’s on display right now.

Had this situation really been about stealing away Canadian auto jobs, yours truly would have been at the front of this parade.

No one has more at stake in this matter than Canadian autoworkers.

This NextStar battery plant will provide jobs to help transition workers, including Unifor members, displaced in the EV shift. And it is the lynchpin for future EV assembly Unifor members will do in both Windsor and Brampton.

Without comparable government supports for battery plants as provided by the U.S, this plant would have been built south of the border.

It’s as simple as that.

But in today’s politics, why should facts get in the way of good story?