Ford plant worker Dennis McGee thought he had "died and gone to heaven" when he collected his first paycheque of $325 in 1978, but now McGee and hundreds of other employees are bidding farewell to the employer that has been the economic backbone of the southwestern Ontario community of St. Thomas for 44 years.
The last sedan rolls off the assembly line Thursday, throwing McGee and the last of the about 1,100 employees out of work at the factory that had 3,600 workers a decade ago. The closure was announced in 2009, as the North American auto industry was taking a battering, but hope prevailed that it would be avoided as auto bailout packages in the midst of the recent recession helped revive North American automakers.
Brief history of St. Thomas, Ont.
Settled in 1810, it was named after Thomas Talbot, who helped promote the development of this region during the early 19th century.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, several railways were constructed through the city that were located halfway between Detroit and Buffalo, so St. Thomas became an important railway junction.
By 1914 there were eight different railways operating with over 100 trains a day passing through the city, earning it the title of the Railway Capital of Canada. Today, that is honoured in the revitalization of the original train station and Elgin County Railway Museum.
The trains contributed to one sad aspect to the local history, when the P.T. Barnum circus elephant Jumbo died on Sept. 15, 1885, when he was struck by a locomotive. Jumbo's memory lives on in a life-sized commemorative statue erected in St. Thomas in 1985.
In the 1950s and 1960s, with the decline of the railway as a mode of transportation, other industry, principally automotive manufacturing, began to locate in the city with plants operated by Magna, Ford and Sterling Trucks along with many secondary producers driving economic prosperity for the next 50 years.
Source: City of St. Thomas
McGee, for one, still has dependents, and is grappling with the forced retirement as the final sedan rolls out of the 2.6-million-square-foot factory where the Lincoln Town Car, Crown Victoria other vehicles have been built.
"My first paycheque I had rent money — $195 plus I had about $130 left over —and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," he says. "I still got kids in university and I gotta figure out how I'm gonna pay for that.
"It's tough, it's emotional, there's a sense of numbness," McGee adds. "I met a lot of good people over the years and to see it shutting down, breaks my heart, it really does."
Heather Jackson Chapman, mayor of the community of about 35,000, says the plant isn't the only business casualty in the community, which is in for some tough times.
More than 3,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the past three years, and St. Thomas now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
"We're never going to see the big plants again that employ 2,000 at a time with the high-paying jobs we became accustomed to — it's just the new reality."
To help the Ford workers, the union and the automaker have worked out compensation packages that allow for early retirements and a limited number of transfers to other Ford factories.
The about 800 remaining employees who need to find new work get a severance package as well as three years of job-search and retraining assistance through a centre set up by the Canadian Auto Workers union. A Ford spokesman says the company remains committed to Ontario, having recently invested in its engine plant in Windsor and its assembly plant in Oakville.