The Half-Life of Canadian General Electric

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Everybody in Peterborough knows all about General Electric, the sprawling industrial complex between Park and Monaghan, and Albert and Wolfe, in the shadow of the High Street water tower, roughly at the boundary of the city’s south end, that was for many years the city’s most iconic and biggest employer.

Two sad stories have dominated people’s understandings of GE lately, one being the campaign by former workers and survivors of dependents for compensation for exposure to carcinogenic toxins at the plant, the other being the closure of the factory, just announced for 2018, after 126 years.

After years of pressure, and a remarkable grassroots campaign to collect and compare the testimonies of hundreds of former employees who worked at the plant over the years, many of whom have since died of cancer, the provincial government has recently announced it is assigning the Workplace Safety Investigation Board to re-open the cases—either as a prelude to granting compensation or, as Sue James, Chair of the GE Retirees Occupational Health Advisory Committee, reckons, as a desperate stalling tactic.

The shutdown is unrelated to the compensation case, though the two tragedies tend to get tied together in people’s minds. The plant is closing down because it’s cheaper to make things elsewhere, and because the company decided long ago that it wasn’t interested in renewing its Peterborough plant.

But the truly devastating blow happened not all of a sudden but in epic slow motion, over a number of decades: the slow decline of industrial manufacturing in the city, a decline that claimed Westclox and Outboard Marine in the 1980s, and has slowly sucked the life force, and the workforce, out of other once-big local employers.

The decline of industry is about more than just jobs. GE wasn’t just an employer. It was a social and cultural institution in Peterborough. It dominated the life of its workers and the culture of the city in ways that are almost unimaginable from our current vantage point, and hard to memorialize without slipping into starry-eyed nostalgia.

It’s easy to talk about how shuttered factories create lay-offs; it’s much harder to reckon with the full human costs of those lay-offs. “Everybody talks about how they’ve destroyed the plant,” video artist Michele Pearson Clarke wrote recently, in reference to General Motors in Oshawa. “Nobody will talk about how we’ve been destroyed.”

The story of the collapse of industry in Peterborough is complex, and it’s hard to draw solid boundaries around it. The long-term exposure to toxic contamination at the GE plant is clearly part of it, but so, arguably, is the rise of precarious work and student debt, the shift to a service economy with low pay and limited opportunities for advancement, and the self-exporting of young people to the oil fields in Alberta.

This narrative, what labour historian Steven High calls the ‘half-life of industry,’ will play out over a long time. And the story of GE, the very good and very bad and everything together, will roll on long after the factory itself is gone.

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The story of industry starts, as so much starts around here, with the Otonabee River, which runs from Lakefield to Rice Lake. Peterborough’s early industrial development was powered by the river, by the force of its gravitational descent, a drop of 30 metres in its steepest section, between Lakefield and the city.

Peterborough began as a timber town, its logs floated down the river to meet the British appetite for ships’ masts whenever possible, or simply cut into boards in one of the many sawmills along the river’s racing route. Nassau Mill, where Trent University’s main campus now sits, was the biggest sawmill in Canada in the 1850s.

The invention around that time of the Faraday dynamo, a device capable of turning mechanical power into electrical power (and, as motors, vice versa), opened up new ways of exploiting the river’s power. With hydroelectricity—literally, water power—industry took off.

GE_GeneratorEdison Electric came in the 1890s, building a power dam at Nassau Mills, now called Stanley Adamson Powerhouse and the property of Trent University, and a sprawling manufacturing plant at what was then the city’s western edge, abutting Monaghan Road.

A year or so later, the name changed, but people kept calling it Edison for ages. Eventually, through the magic of mergers, the name General Electric took hold, and was eventually embraced for the site.

In its first few years, the plant made motors and dynamos for dams of various types and sizes. In fact, motors were a mainstay of the plant for its full lifetime. They built the largest motors in the world, supplying industry and hydroelectric dams; they even built a large motor for a ride at Disneyworld.

Eventually it expanded to making light bulbs and refrigerators, high-tech devices too expensive for most local people, who trusted in the ice industry well into the last century.

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Whereas today we work flexible hours, often at the beck and call of demanding employers, often too much at a time or too little, life in the factories was all about the regimentation and organization of time. James compares the operations of the GE factory to an orchestra, in which various people played various roles that had to work in concert to a defined end goal.

Time was central to this process. It’s a truism that factory work breaks with earlier forms of labour in its time-discipline: the organization of workers’ activities into controllable units of energy. Westclox, across the river on Armour Hill, made the clocks, but every factory ran on them.

To its immediate neighbours, in fact, the GE factory is best recognized by its whistles, marking the start of the day, the end of the day, and the various breaks therein. But GE was notable for never using an assembly line of the kind that came to define work in the car factory, for instance.

Workers at GE retained a kind of craft approach to their work, addressing each motor they built, and each part of that went into that motor, as a unique project requiring expertise, teamwork, and careful planning.

Sue James worked in vocal dispatch, the organizing centre of the factory, where women sitting at a switchboard would track the activities of workers phoning their projects in. “People would call in and say they were starting on a job,” she remembers, “then they’d call when the job was done.” Tickets were compiled, and supervisors would look through them and sign them.

In the 80s, of course, vocal dispatch went to computers: the women produced punch cards stored with the necessary information, to be fed into once-new-but-now-old computers. The GE orchestra was digitized, but the work was still done by skilled people with nimble hands, carrying out tasks their predecessors introduced them to.

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General Electric eventually shifted away from refrigerators and towards nuclear power, playing a key role in the development of the first nuclear plant at Chalk River, near Pembroke, Ontario, in 1960, and then the Bruce and Darlington plants. The Peterborough plant built fuel bundles for the reactors.

Nuclear was good business, but it was more than a bit of a devil’s bargain. The shift away from consumer products undoubtedly allowed GE to keep operating longer after Free Trade than it otherwise would have. Nuclear gave the Peterborough factory a global market for its work, but it also exposed workers to even more toxic chemicals than they had already been exposed to.

If the Peterborough plant had still been making refrigerators in the 1980s, it would have shut down around the same time Brantford’s shoe manufacturers closed for good, triggering a near-death spiral in the city’s economy. Peterborough and its workers were spared that fate, working for longer, but in more damaging circumstances. It will be many more decades before we can reckon with the full costs of that trade-off.

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Smells and sounds play a bit part of Sue James’s memories of working at GE. “I could walk blindfolded through that plant,” she says now. Her father wore standard green work pants and shirt and “I can still remember the smell on his clothing, sort of like an oily smell.” Even when he changed after work, or on weekends, “you could still smell it; it was in him.”

GE_PoisonWhen she started working there, “it was like coming home.” Not only was the plant blocks from her home, staffed with family and friends and neighbours, but it had the same smells she knew from her childhood—smells that she now knows were giving her father cancer.

It breaks James’s heart to reflect on the dissonance. “We had no idea, none whatsoever,” she says. As a new worker, “you go in there and start work; usually a senior worker would say, ‘This is what you do.’ If they said, ‘Stick your hands in this,” you said ok. You trusted GE would look after you. They wouldn’t have you do it if it wasn’t safe.”

The reality, which James and her fellow retirees have been meticulously recording, has been difficult to absorb. “There’s conflict there when I remember it,” she says.

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Every Christmas, General Electric would have a large Christmas tree and give out gifts to all the employees’ children. In the early days it was set up at Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School, the city’s former downtown high school, but later the celebration was moved to the Memorial Centre.

“I went as a kid, then when I started working there and I had children, I took them.” That element of tradition meant a lot to James. “Those were my memories, then I was able to take my children.”

Workers at the plant could opt to pay in to the Social and Athletic Club, which allowed you to play on any sport—bowling, baseball, hockey, basketball—often in shop-league teams drawn from the different shops—for example nuclear versus machine shop. There was an annual picnic with free rides and food, tug of war, games for children, three-legged races.

There’s a complex mix of emotions at work in the story of GE and the people who worked there. “It upsets me to think that we worked in that,” James says, and that sense of betrayal is expressed loudly and clearly in her group’s demand for compensation for lives lost.

GE_XMAS“On the other hand,” she says, “I have a lot of fond memories, a lot of loyalty, because it was a good living.”

It had benefits, she says. “If you just wanted to be a middle-income family, you could do it.” As GE workers, “we were able to buy a house,” which James points out proudly was “the epitome of middle class.”

The good pay a GE job provided wasn’t just a glue holding families together. It also allowed people to be independent within families, to choose. James and her first husband, who also worked at GE, were divorced—a privilege not available to earlier generations.

“When we were separated, I was financially well off,” she says. “Older women didn’t have the independence. I could do it. I didn’t have to stay somewhere I didn’t want to be.”

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Everyone knows the story of the carcinogens workers were exposed to, and they also know the story of GE workers donating to establish Trent University in the 1960s, and of the company’s donation of land and various other assets, including the hydroelectric dam. But there’s also another story about GE and education.

A lot of GE workers left school at 16 to start work at GE. Without a high school education, they were able to get good jobs with good, stable pay that allowed them to buy homes, support their families, and send their kids to Trent or Sir Sanford.

But GE also ran a school, in partnership with Kenner Collegiate, offering courses in English and math, among other subjects, in the evenings after work hours. James knows at least 50 people who got their high school diploma that way, including her.

With GE gone, a new employer is unlikely to provide that kind of support to its workers.

That story is part of the story GE, and should be remembered alongside the toxins.

 

Illustrations by B. Mroz.

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David Tough

David Tough

david.tough

David Tough is a musician, scholar, and journalist from Peterborough, Ontario. He is Contributing Editor and co-Publisher of Electric City Magazine.