Much As They Might Wish Otherwise, Workers Can't Yell 'Halt' To the World

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The entertainer Sting thinks that the shutdown of a GM plant threatens an historically great North American industrial city in the same way that the closure of shipbuilding facilities in Newcastle had impact on that city’s future. He’s right - the auto plant shutdown won’t halt the region’s economic growth and diversification any more than the end of the local shipbuilding industry permanently undermined Newcastle. Both cities are thriving - and will likely continue to for a long while.

Sting is today bringing to the long-time Canadian auto capital of Oshawa the Toronto production of The Last Ship, his musical about the economic turmoil that followed the collapse of Newcastle’s long-time shipbuilding industry when the former Police frontman was growing up.

GM announced in November it would mothball the Oshawa car plant and lay off almost all of its remaining 2600 employees. Sting has told the Canadian TV network CTV that the plot of The Last Ship mirrors what the people of Oshawa are going through as GM closes its assembly plant. In a sense, he is correct. Oshawa is going through a process similar to the one Newcastle has undergone - one of rebirth. The working class city about an hour east of Toronto has reinvented itself, engineering a transformation from a city that makes cars to one that provides services - notably post-secondary education and health care.

While GM’s plant closure will hit many in Oshawa hard, it most definitely does not spell the end of Oshawa’s economic growth. It isn’t even slowing it down. The city has already seen 20,000 direct GM jobs disappear since 1980 - almost 10 times as many as it will now lose due to the plant’s mothballing. Nevertheless, unemployment rates are down, job creation is up, and the city’s population is growing. The people of the city and region are by and large spending their time and energy performing jobs that are more productive and lucrative. Rather than engage in self-pity, the people of Oshawa have been engaged in self-transformation, shifting from an industrial centre to a centre of advanced services.

Meanwhile, the people of Newcastle are also achieving economic growth. They just aren’t doing it by building ships. Instead, they are building experiences that people from the rest of North East England and beyond come to enjoy. The city has gone through many transformations since its founding as a Roman fort two millennia ago. During the Middle Ages the town flourished in the wool trade. It later became the coal capital of England. During the industrial revolution, heavy industry thrived, and Newcastle’s location made it an ideal base for building both steam trains and ships.

After World War II, Newcastle, like so many Western cities, saw a steady decline in heavy industry. But over the past half-century the region has experienced a rise in the public, retail and entertainment sectors, transforming itself into a cultural landmark and renowned business and social hub.

We are seeing massive economic change, and dramatic shifts in the means of production. But that is a good thing, a sign of our increased efficiency. We have seen similar changes in the past, such as when feudalism withered away. No doubt, many felt negative impact from this shift hundreds of years ago, and some failed to make the most of the change, at least temporarily. But would we address the challenges of change by trying to put a halt to it? Had we done that hundreds of years ago, we would still be serfs.

Like the GM union in Oshawa, the shipyard workers in Newcastle tried to say “halt” to the world. But the world continued to spin, and the economy continued to change. Newcastle transformed itself, and Oshawa is doing the same. There is no need to stage a theatrical for this dynamic city and dynamic region. The people of Oshawa know their story, and they are rightly proud of it.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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