It’s always tragic when hundreds of people lose their jobs, especially if they’re unlikely to get another job, and if they support dependents, and if losing their job also means losing benefits they were entitled to as employees, and which they would benefit from as unemployed people.
The announcement that General Electric is closing its Peterborough plant and laying off the remaining workers is definitely tragic, by any reckoning. But anyone who is shocked by it has not been paying attention. The closure is decades in the making, the tail end of a process that has affected communities across North America, and which Peterborough already knows well.
Once it became less expensive to ship goods anywhere in the world than to manufacture them close to where they were sold, it was all but a foregone conclusion that manufacturing would, bit by bit, relocate from areas with high labour costs to places with low labour costs. It has happened more quickly in some places than others, but it’s happening everywhere.
Peterborough has done better than some and worse than others, losing a few of our factories outright, but holding onto the twin titans, General Electric and Quaker Oats, though at a fraction of their previous power.
For a few generations in Peterborough, under the beneficent rule of the manufacturers, it was possible to leave high school and get a good job for life in a factory. Factories paid mortgages, paid taxes for schools and hospitals, supported charities, and put kids through school. Their slow but steady downfall has been a loss to a whole community, not just to the workers who were downsized.
In their place have arisen new gods. Public sector giants like Trent University and Sir Sandford Fleming College now rank among the biggest employers in the city. But most jobs there and in the public service require higher education, a new career calculus that excludes a lot of people, whether through cost or aptitude. Do they get to have jobs, buy homes, and put kids through school?
Illustration by B Mroz.