A Bit of History

A Letter to Someone Who Can't Understand What Happened to Us

Stewart Sinclair

As I recollect, having been a male factory worker in a "traditional occupation" from about 1965 to 1989, it was not a case of what male workers demanded or didn't demand. They/we had the ground shot out from under us. The first wave of the bankers assault happened in 1981 when Fed Chairman Paul Volker (he's back with the Obama bailout operation) and BoC governor Gerald Bouey created a massive but fairly short lived recession by jacking interest rates to over 20%. The Inglis factory down on the Lakeshore (producing washers, dryers and dishwashers) where I was working at the time, within a month or so was on a three-day work week. (At least half of the work force in the Inglis plant at the time were women by the way, and some had been there since WWII.)

The interest rates stayed quite high throughout the eighties and only came down near the end. This kind of regime steadily undermined traditional manufacturing industry. I remember seeing statistics on different pages of the same issue of The Globe and Mail in the mid eighties, talking on the one hand about a panic on the Tokyo stock exchange because interest rates there had just been jacked from 3.5% to 3.75% while in Canada interest rate declined slightly from about 12.4% to 12.2%. I even pointed this out to the president of the union local at the time – but got no reaction and he was a radical. Combine these usurious interest rates with the fact that the banks would nearly always lend to a large foreign firm to buy out a Canadian firm but usually would not lend as readily to local entrepreneurs to expand and you get the picture. The banks as they say, are risk averse. Unless it involves large bonuses for their managers.

In any case the next hammer blows came in 1989. BoC governor John Crow cranked our interest rates back through the roof to get "0%" inflation precipitating the recession of the '90s (deepest and longest since the 1930s) while the Free Trade Agreement came into force through a massive serious of changes in Canadian law. Caught between the two local industry and it's workers were toast.

At the end of 1989 the Inglis plant closed its doors putting a lot of fairly well-paid men and women out of work. Around that time I watched the Chevy van plant on the Golden Mile go down, Canada Wire & Cable in Leaside, Phillips Cable in Scarborough, Sunbeam electric and Goodyear Tire & Rubber in Etobicoke, Federal Nut and Bolt in the west end – and the list could go on for quite a while. Massey Ferguson Farm machinery on King Street and Brantford had already been run into the ground by Conrad Black. Along with all these closings went support operation like Bathurst Tool and Die. That's only what I knew about from having worked in some of these places or heard about from others who worked in them directly, as well as seeing these factories flattened to make way for condos and shopping malls.

After the recession of the '90s almost none of that came back. After that it was real estate development, banking and Burger King all sustained by unprocessed natural resource sales and immigration to fill the houses and fill the jobs that a lot of those ex-factory workers didn't have the stomach for – or in many cases the training. The only thing that survived was auto and auto parts and for a time computer software development and support. Now those are nearly gone too.

Neither the men nor the women knew what hit them and their union "leadership" along with most of the NDP were asleep at the switch. These issues were all raised by the Waffle movement of the NDP at the beginning of the seventies. This was the last significant left nationalist opposition movement to hit the national stage and whole process of foreign corporate and bank take-over was only beginning then. The NDP brass moved to kill the Waffle. But the rest of the left didn't do it much good either. They were ahead of their time and we really didn't know what we were doing.

This is only one part of the history that brought us to the current mess. But it's a critical part. Without our history we are mentally defenceless, and if you didn't live through it and participate at the time you have no way of knowing it. At least not without investing a huge research effort and having the collaboration of people who did live through it – and paid attention. Because no institution teaches this.

Stewart Sinclair

– from COMER, 2010