The life of an autoworker has traditionally had ups and downs, but there might not be another 'up'
What happened to the St. Thomas region after Ford might be a harbinger for Oshawa after GM's exit
Working in the automotive industry is not for the faint of heart. Nor is belonging to family of automotive workers. Legions of southern Ontarians got a reminder of that, again, with the news of next year's closure of the General Motors factory in Oshawa, Ont.
I've experienced the cycle of automotive boom and bust firsthand. When I was 10 years old in the 1950s, our family moved from Toronto to Windsor, Ont. Our father, who worked at a factory, was offered a better paying job at Ford Motor Company. He was guaranteed a job that was expected to exist for a long time.
Yet we were in Windsor for three months, and Ford went on strike. Chrysler and GM went on strike, too, so a lot of workers in the area were in limbo, and it was a depressing time. My father then applied for a factory job in St. Thomas, Ont. and we joined him there in 1958. He eventually retired from that job at 65, having weathered plenty of ups and downs and scores of union negotiations.
St. Thomas Assembly
In 1964, I married a factory worker. You think I would know better, but after 54 years, I can say now that it was a great decision. Both of us were working (I was working as a secretary) and struggling to raise a family on our wages. In 1970, my husband started work at the St. Thomas Assembly in nearby Talbotville.
When production was good, workers at the plant worked 10-hour shifts. But when the economy was bad — in the late '70s and early '80s, and cars were not selling — there was a lot of down time. Sometimes, they were off work more than they were on. We would have to wait for unemployment pay and money from Ford. Some weeks, we would have no money, and then it would come all at the same time.
One Christmas, I was not working as jobs were scarce, and my husband was not working as production was down. I actually cut pictures out of the Christmas catalogue and told my children they would get something when we had money to buy them. They were understanding of the situation, as this was the life of an auto worker. There are ebbs and flows. We lived with rumours constantly of Ford leaving and closing the plant.
Over the years, as union people, we marched on Parliament Hill, protesting with teachers and nurses — even in December when we would rather have been home. We fought for better wages, health benefits and pension reforms — not just for us but for everyone. Our children used to joke with us to not get arrested, because they wouldn't bail us out.
My husband retired in 2000, about a decade before the Ford plant closed for good. What happened to the St. Thomas region in the aftermath might be a harbinger for Oshawa after GM's exit.
We lost a number of manufacturing jobs that provided car parts, on top of the 1,100 Ford workers who were left unemployed. Plants such as Lear Corp. — which made seats — and Timken Co. — which made bearings — closed up shop, leaving hundreds more out of work. The Sterling truck plant in St. Thomas closed. Employment growth over the last few years in the region has been stagnant, and there is growing demand for local aid services such as food banks and drop-in shelters.
With the announcement that the GM plant in Oshawa will close in 2019, there is concern that our feeder plants — Formet Industries and Presstran Industries, which provide auto parts — will close, too, resulting in more job losses.
The automotive industry in Ontario has always had ups and downs, but the outlook right now is very bleak and it's hard to see a silver lining. Oshawa's fate might follow St. Thomas's, which will mean a hard landing for workers and their families. The life of an autoworker has always had some degree of uncertainty, but unfortunately now, the future seems fairly certain.