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‘My dad worked at Chrysler, and he made a call to get me into Chrysler,” Ken Lewenza says, recalling his introduction to the auto industry at the age of 18. “I did the same for my son, and now that’s it.”No one can make that call for his granddaughter, even if, until a few months ago, Mr. Lewenza was president of the Canadian Auto Workers, because she is at the end of the line.
Not so long ago, the Big Three auto companies were the relatively stable backbone of Windsor’s economy. Now even Chrysler, the last to maintain any significant local presence, is down to a work force of about 4,600 – and nobody is especially confident about how long those jobs will be around.
I was raised in Kitchener and spent summers playing in vacant lots, balancing on rusted railway tracks and throwing rocks at abandoned factories. The three days I spent photographing the ghosts of Ontario’s manufacturing heyday gave me a chance to reflect on my hometown. I shot in black and white to express the nostalgia that came to me when I saw places like the shuttered GM plant in Windsor and the streets of London and Kitchener.
I wanted to offer the viewer a small part of the emotions felt by someone who grew up in these places. I also worked to make a connection with the next generation growing up in struggling industry towns. These are the kids who were raised on blue-collar incomes but will likely never experience a day of work on an assembly line.
Having retired last fall, shortly after the CAW became part of Unifor, the Canadian private-sector’s biggest union, Mr. Lewenza is back full-time in its hometown. And the uncertain future of the city and its surroundings, home to more than 300,000 people, across the river from Detroit, is enough to keep him up at night.
To reinforce his concern, he produces a pile of printouts chronicling an exodus: With few prospects of secure, well-paid jobs, young people are leaving.
The problem isn’t limited to Windsor. In 12 days, Ontario goes to the polls, with Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals trying to fend off the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats. For whoever wins, no part of the province presents more of a challenge than the southwest, and it isn’t just the young feeling the pain.
In Windsor, all ages share the pain. While young people must look elsewhere for work, older ones don’t know where to look at all. They argue that, in some ways, not getting a spot on the assembly line – and the sense of self-worth that comes with the pay – is less traumatic than having one cruelly taken away.
The impact can be devastasting, says John Toth, a resource-development manager with the United Way of Windsor-Essex.
He has seen how levels of depression, addiction, domestic assault and divorce rise appreciably among people who lose jobs they thought they had for life and can find nothing remotely comparable with which to replace them.
Mr. Toth knows the story all too well. In 2010, he was being paid about $28 an hour to make axles for minivans when Martinrea International closed its Fabco plant after 45 years. However, his experience on his union’s labour-adjustment committee helped him land a job with a rare vantage point from which to track the fate of others less fortunate.
Today, only half of Fabco’s roughly 300 employees are still in the work force, Mr. Toth estimates, with maybe 60 earning “anything close to what they made before.”
Even more grim, he adds, is what happened when another plant about the same size shut down: In a matter of months, three of the employees who were laid off had taken their own lives.
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