Okay, I have to come clean at the outset: I never worked for GM, but I worked at GM, in what they called then the Autoplex in Oshawa, Ont. And this story really doesn’t have anything to do with automotive. Except where it does.
But let me back up, all the way to the early 1980s.
I had turned 19 (or was it 20?). I had grown tired of the summer and part-time factory job I’d had and needed a change, so I took a minimum-wage job at a “family entertainment” restaurant that featured an oversized rodent mascot. Since I was of age, they put me on door control, keeping underage patrons from scamming beer at the restaurant.
As it so happened, it was also the summer I had my wisdom teeth out.
I took the day off following surgery and ended up paying a visit to a kart track north of Toronto where I’d raced often. There I ran into Tony Tracy, father of racer and one-time karting rival Paul Tracy. He asked me what I was working at and told me he’d pay me twice that to come be a painter’s helper for his company – starting, like, tomorrow.
And so it was that I ended up riding shotgun every morning for the rest of that summer. Tony Tracy leaned forward at the wheel of his pickup, cigarette in hand, 60 km an hour on the 401 from Toronto to Oshawa, slowing to the roadside to pick up painters – who came from all over for the work — who would jump into the bed.
I painted some – railings and some detail work (where I learned that catwalks and Tylenol 3s do not mix; I opted to tough out the residual wisdom tooth pain) – but mostly I mixed paint for the pros. Lots of paint, for what must have been acres of interior walls and roof surfaces.
I’ve never forgotten how impressive the buildings were; big enough for train cars to pull inside. I also never forgot how hard the painters worked and how skilled they were, spending hours on end rhythmically spraying bright white paint, seldom leaving even a single drip. I also learned to never assume that an upturned empty 20L paint pail is there for the taking as lunchtime seating, especially when it was put there by someone twice your size. And there was a lot more too.
So, when news of the impending closure of the assembly plant reached me, I certainly thought of those 2,500 workers on the line, but I also thought of all the other folks who had a connection, however small, to what remains one of Canada’s most impressive manufacturing ventures.
I don’t know what will happen in three, six, or twelve months—I hear some of those line workers may be retrained to work as techs–but I’ll never forget the many lessons about work and life in that summer I worked in the shadow of GM.