If You Build It, Great Things Will Come

Driving north along Highway 401 in southern Ontario (more simply known as the four-oh-one to those who drive it daily) you might pass a little community called Ingersoll.

Ingersoll is the type of town that you might not notice while driving the busy 12 lane highway, that is unless you know that it is one of the stops on the Oxford County Cheese Trail, and is home to Canadian Automotive Manufacturing Inc. (CAMI)

General Motors (GM) Canada, which now owns the CAMI Assembly Plant, is the main business in town. At the beginning of the year, GM announced that they are committing $1 billion to convert Ingersoll’s long-standing automotive plant to become Canada’s first large scale electric vehicle manufacturing plant. This was huge news for the community of 13,000 people, many of whom work at the plant.

It is also exciting for people like Mike Van Boekel, CAMI’s acting plant chair for Unifor Local 88, who has worked hard over the years to create job security for the 1,500 fellow union members who work at CAMI.  

CAMI employees help delivery Christmas Hampers (from left to right, Tyler Vere, Sheri Adams, Jon Nunn).
Top photo, CAMI workers celebrating 30 years in 2019.
All photos courtesy of GM & Mike Van Boekel.

CAMI automotive was established in 1986 as a joint venture between General Motors and Suzuki Motor Corporation and opened its doors in 1989. The plant produced vehicles for both Chevrolet and Suzuki, including the Suzuki Sidekick, the GEO Tracker, and the more popular Chevrolet Equinox, which has been CAMI’s best selling vehicle for over ten years. In 2011, General Motors took over full ownership of CAMI.

Since opening thirty years ago, CAMI has gone through its challenges including layoffs, strikes, and even a bankruptcy for GM in 2009, which left a lot of employees uncertain of their futures. During COVID-19, like many others, CAMI had to carry out temporary layoffs, and once again, employees weren’t sure what was going to happen to their jobs. Currently, CAMI is on a temporary shutdown as they are dealing with a parts shortage, something that seems like a new normal in the time of COVID-19. Still, their future looks bright.

Mike Van Boekel lives on his family farm outside of the small community of Hickson, just a 25 minute drive from Ingersoll, with his wife, Jennifer and three kids: Jacob, Greg, and Hannah. Mike stays busy working on the farm, raising chickens, and raising his family. He has also spent 31 years working at CAMI. He has been a union representative for 25 of those years, and the Head Union Rep for the past 15. He takes this role very seriously.

“I always say, I have 1,500 bosses.” Mike corrects himself to say it’s 1,501 if he includes his wife.

‘CAMI IS LIKE A MINI TOWN’

Mike started on the assembly line in the early nineties and stayed there for close to five years before realizing that what he really wanted to do was work for the union and make CAMI a better place for workers.

It takes a strong team to keep things running in good order. Union representatives work hard to keep the workers safe, healthy, and treated fairly. There are 22 representatives, including three Health and Safety reps, one for every shift and, there is even a Human Rights representative. Taking good care of employees is important to Mike and his team. 

The Van Boekel Family

ONE LAST BARGAIN

At General Motors, employees can retire after 30 years, which means Mike could take an early retirement. His farm is doing well, his kids are getting older, and his wife would love for him to be home more, but Mike wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet; he wanted to enter one more bargain for his union brothers and sisters.

“I was hoping for a new product. I really wanted it to be electric,” he says.

Mike cares most about making sure that the plant is full and that he is able to guarantee his fellow union members job security; what came next was more than he could ever have imagined.

When Mike went into bargaining this past year, he had a good feeling that they would be awarded the contract for the electric version of their best selling mid-size compact sports utility vehicle, the Chevrolet Equinox. However, he was set on landing more than one electric vehicle contract as a way to guarantee real job security in a future where electric vehicles are set to replace internal combustion engines. When Mike found out that GM signed on with both Purolator and Amazon to manufacture their delivery vehicles and that CAMI would be the only plant building these new commercial fleets, he was thrilled.

CAMI employees help make a little girl’s wish come true by building her a purple treehouse (The Make a Wish Foundation).

These electric trucks are much more labour intensive to manufacture than personal electric vehicles, which provides better job security for workers. Mike acknowledges that the transitions to electric vehicle production might result in some job loss in the industry, still, he sees this more as a shift. The jobs that remain will be long-term since electric vehicles are here to stay, which is better for workers and their families. On top of that, there will be opportunities for suppliers and other spin-off companies that will play an important role in providing new and exciting parts that they probably don’t even know exist yet. There is a lot of promise for job creation.

“We are just on the leading edge of things, and it’s going to grow by leaps and bounds.” Mike sees the possibilities, and for him, they are endless.

THE EMPLOYEES ARE PRETTY HAPPY, TOO

The employees were pretty happy with the outcome of the most recent bargaining; the vote was 91% in favour. These contracts ensure job security for the next ten years. For a community that relies on this industry to both survive and thrive, this was great news, especially since if the plant were to ever shut down, the town might just go down with it. This is what an industry successfully transitioning to renewable energy in a way that benefits their workers and the community can look like.

“There aren’t many jobs, especially in manufacturing, where you have a ten year commitment,” Mike says.

Right now, the plant workers are broken down into three distinct groups. There are the employees who have been working alongside Mike for close to 30 years and are almost ready to retire. Then there are a large number of workers who have been with the company for the 15 year mark. These people are likely to finish their working careers with CAMI. The last group are the ones who have been with CAMI for 5 years or less.

Ariel view of the Van Boekel Farm in Hickson, Ontario. Notice the ball diamond in the corner of one field.

These major contracts will ensure that the people who Mike has worked with for most of his life will get to retirement no problem; the workers who are at that 15 year mark will get close to retirement with very little chance of unexpected lay-offs; and, the younger ones, some who are just married and starting families of their own, will have at least ten years of job security that will help them get a great start in life.

Last year, 462 people retired from CAMI, and with COVID-19, GM dropped down from three shifts to two. With the electric trucks going into production this year, the plant will be back up to three shifts, which means a need for more skilled workers who are excited about the transition to renewable energies and the major potential in electrifying different forms of transportation.

Mike says there are more than 30 members who drive electric vehicles to work and a dozen hookups for EV’s in the parking lot. For him, the next big breakthrough will be how fast you can charge a vehicle; he hears talk of wanting to get it down to five minutes.

It is an exciting time for the industry, and Mike loves that he got to be a part of it. A lot of the younger people who are just starting out in the plant are really excited about what’s happening; they know it’s a good move for the industry and a good move for the environment, and that’s important. “The younger generation really gets it,” he says.

Mike often wonders where the time goes. It can be hard seeing people he started his career with leave and retire, and thinking about his own retirement, he says, “it’s true what they say, you blink and then it’s gone.”

IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN JUST WORK

For Mike, taking care of his fellow union members has been his life’s work. Being in a leadership position in his career has also allowed him to give back to his community in a big way. Each year Mike and his team donate to charity on behalf of the union.

They once spent $50,000 on a Dora the Explorer backpack from Handbags for Hospice and the most expensive cupcakes he has ever tasted from a Big Brothers and Big Sisters charity event.

The most expensive cupcakes ever tasted.

“You feel like Santa Clause for the day when you get to give like this,” Mike says.

Before each of these events, the team met with the auctioneer and one member of the charity to let them in on their plan, and then proceeded to buy two tables for each event, making sure they were seated on opposite sides of the room. What happened next left the rooms in awe.

“We chose one of the small auction items that would usually bring in thirty dollars, and we started a bidding war until we reached $25,000; when I started bidding $5,000 on cupcakes, not even my wife knew what was going on,” Mike says.

It is definitely one of the highlights of the job, being able to give back, and it sets a great example for his kids, too. Mike’s 19 year old son Greg, who is currently training to become a police officer, recently applied to become a Big Brother himself.

Greg runs a baseball camp. But not just any baseball camp. Greg and his brother Jacob started the Van Boekel Field of Dreams Baseball Camp that will be entering its third year. Knowing that not everyone can afford to attend a six week camp, Greg hopes to bring one little sister and one little brother from the organization to train at their field that has become somewhat of a local attraction.

‘IF YOU BUILD IT, HE WILL COME’

The famous (often mis-quoted) line from the 1989 classic movie, Field of Dreams, was what inspired the Van Boekel family to turn their ordinary cornfield into a place where dreams could come true.

Mike has lived on the same farm his entire life. When his parents retired, he happily took over the family farm where he spent his own childhood. He has even gone to the same church since he was a kid, Holy Trinity Catholic Parish in Woodstock.

“My parents are still very involved in the church, my aunts, uncles, and cousins all go to the same church,” he says.

Although his parents are still very active in church life, they decided to leave the farming to Mike and his wife and his kids, who help out a lot. His wife, Jennifer grew up on a dairy farm herself just twenty minutes away on the other side of the four-oh-one.

One night, Mike and Jennifer were sitting on their back porch wondering what they could do with their small backyard. Most of the land was taken up by cornfields, and that’s when it hit them, why not build a baseball field? So, in 2010, they took one acre of their corn field and transformed it into their very own field of dreams.

Welcome to the Van Boekel Field of Dreams.

“It’s like having an ice rink in your backyard, only instead, it’s a ball field,” Mike says.

And that ballfield has brought a lot of attention to the small community of Hickson.  

“We get people stopping here all the time,” Mike says.

Mike and his family leave baseball gloves and bats out so that people can use the field. It lets the community come together in a fun way. People have come to their field to take wedding photos; people have even asked if they can hold their ceremonies there. One couple from Kitchener, who were big fans of the movie, renewed their vows on home plate.  As it turned out, the husband was terminally ill, so this was an incredibly special moment for the couple, and Mike was honoured to be able to help make that happen for them.

And then three years ago, Mike received a call from the Blue Jays. At first, he thought it was someone playing a joke on him, until he realized it was in fact their charity organization and they wanted to use the Van Boekels’ baseball field for Girls at Bat, a program that focuses on increasing female participation in sports—his answer of course was, Yes!

In 2018, the Jays Care Foundation held their first ever Girls at Bat All-Star Game for girls ages nine to 11 at the Van Boekel’s very own field of dreams with the slogan: “if you build it, the girls will come”

Mike remembers lots of the workers at CAMI coming up to him after the All Star game telling him that they saw his field on the jumbo screen at the last Jays game they went to. That attention probably helped when the family entered the Pioneer Seeds Here’s to Hometowns contest, which asked participants how they would make a difference in their community if they were $50,000 richer.

The family got their cameras out to show the world just how special Hickson and Oxford County really are. Mike and his family focussed on five ongoing projects in their community that always need extra funding, including the school, the Hickson firefighters, the local Lions Club, Oxford County Mental health, and of course their own baseball field that needed a proper infield to make it safer for their many visitors.  

The contest was based on public votes, and CAMI ran their video every day on the flatscreens in each one of the break rooms. “That alone was 1,500 votes a day, if everyone was voting.”

Mike remembers the employees at CAMI being incredibly supportive. Still, it was a bit of a shock when they actually won—he knew he had the support of his fellow union members and the community, but he didn’t realize how much support he had across the region; people were really rooting for them to win.

Tractor rides are all a part of the experience at this Field of Dreams.

‘I THINK I CAN LEAVE NOW, AND THE FUTURE LOOKS PRETTY DARN GOOD’

There are good people out there, doing hard work, and Mike is just one of them. He feels pretty good about what he has accomplished for the workers during his time at CAMI.

For Mike, taking care of people is important. He has spent his career fighting for good paying jobs and healthy work environments. Towns like Ingersoll rely on industry, yet Mike sees it more as a back and forth relationship: industry also relies on the communities where they operate, and it is important that they take care of those people, including finding solutions that will help make their water, air and land clean and healthy. CAMI’s commitment to becoming Canada’s first electric vehicle manufacturer sets a great example for other industry towns to transition to more renewable energies and change in a changing world. It is something the town of Ingersoll is proud of.