For several days afterwards, Mike Wilson could barely stand up when he got out of bed in the morning because his frostbitten feet were so tender. On Jan. 9, the 44year-old Ajax, Ont., millwright endured sub-zero temperatures and stood for nine hours in an enormous lineup outside a convention centre in Pickering, a suburb east of Toronto, to apply for work at General Motors of Canada Ltd.
(GM) in nearby Oshawa. Over a two-day period, a total of 26,000 desperate job hunters filled out applications, despite lottery-like odds against landing a $22-anhour assembly-line job with the giant automaker. “It was brutal,”
Wilson, whose job with a Toronto-based manufacturing company is about to disappear because of a corporate restructuring, recalled two days later. “Memories of this thing won’t go away. I can already see the bumper stickers: ‘I was in the General Motors lineup and I’m still unemployed.’ ”
In fact, the lineup may well become an enduring symbol of Canada’s troubled economy in the early 1990s—just as images of Prairie dust storms and men riding westbound railway boxcars have come to epitomize the Great Depression of the 1930s. GM officials admitted that they were unprepared for the response and that they underestimated the hunger for secure jobs that brought people to Pickering from across Ontario, and even as far away as Regina. The turnout was even more remarkable given that the company had not announced any firm plans to begin hiring new workers. “Our aim,” said GM Canada president and general manager Maureen Kempston Darkes, “is simply to create a pool of workers who could fill in for normal attrition, some time in the future.”
She also doused rumors that the automaker is planning to add a third shift—and as many as 1,200 jobs—at its Chevrolet Lumina and Monte Carlo assembly plant in Oshawa. Still, rumors of such large-scale hiring continually circulated among those who shivered and froze in the lineup. And they contributed to the stampede to fill out applications. James Hood, manager of special events at the 250,000-square-foot Metro East Trade Centre, which occupies the equivalent of about two city blocks, said that several hundred people were already gathered outside the facility when he left around 6 p.m. on Jan. 8, a Sunday, after a weekly flea market and antique show.
Initially, GM had planned to accept applications between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. both Monday and Tuesday, based on an anticipated response of about 5,000 job seekers per day. But the huge crowds changed that agenda. Staff began admitting people an hour early on Monday morning. By mid-afternoon that day, hundreds of people near the front of the line were becoming nervous and irritable because they feared that they might not be admitted by 4 p.m. At that point, GM officials conferred briefly and announced that they would keep the centre open until midnight. Later that evening, they made a decision to run all night. They finally began to turn people away at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, at which point they had been operating nearly 36 hours straight and had received an estimated 26,000 applications.
But the numbers, as big as they were, tell only a fragment of the story. The individuals in the crowd, and their personal experiences, represented a microcosm of almost everything that has gone wrong in the Canadian economy since the recession hit in 1990— and since an uneven recovery began two years ago. There were both skilled workers and unskilled workers who have been out of work for months, university graduates and high-school dropouts who have not been able to land anything beyond minimumwage jobs, single mothers on welfare and stay-at-home mothers attempting to rejoin the workforce. In short, the lineup contained hundreds of people who have been knocked down the economic ladder or knocked out of the workforce—in many cases through no fault of their own. Some stories from the longest line:
_] “We got in the line at 10 to five in the morning on Monday and I was overwhelmed,” recalls Susan Devitt, a 31-year-old mother of three, just two credits short of a high-school diploma, from Nestleton, Ont., a village 80 km northeast of Toronto. “It was hard even finding the end of the line. For the last 2l/i hours I was leaning on the people in front of me because of the pressure from people pushing. I got frostbite on eight of my toes. My only hope for a job this winter was as a part-time cross-country ski instructor but now my toes are buggered. The guy I’m living with lost his job at a printing company last summer because of a fight with his boss. He filed for unemployment insurance Aug. 8 and it still isn’t settled. He’s been working a bit here and there but we had to get welfare. We received one cheque in early January that was for $17 more than the mortgage. It’s been a rollercoaster. So with mortgage payments and kids and cars to keep on the road, $22 an hour sounds real good.”
THE EDUCATION CONNECTION
Since 1990, there has been a net increase of more than 400,000 jobs across Canada-virtually all of them requiring some postsecondary education.
Level of education Change in number of people employed, 1990-1994 Grade 8 or less -147,000 Some high school -373,000 High-school graduate -158,000 Some postsecondary +43,000 College or technical degree +646,000 University graduate +452,000
_J “I looked up and down that line and found myself thinking This is where I’m at at age 42,’ ” says Bruce Huta, a former financial collection agency executive from Richmond Hill, Ont. With a community college diploma in environmental horticulture, as well as several credits in sales and marketing courses, Huta notes: “I’ve had some
very responsible jobs in my field. About four years ago, I decided to work on my own as a collections consultant but it just didn’t pan out. I couldn’t compete against the big guns in the industry. My unemployment insurance ran out and I still wasn’t getting the accounts in to support myself so I found myself in the welfare system. I’m living in a basement apartment and driving a 1977 Honda Civic. I’m getting to the point in my life where, if I don’t land a good job, it isn’t going to happen. I was there out of desperation. A $20-an-hour paycheque, plus benefits, would be a godsend.”
_J “I was hoping to get into GM one day,” says 26-year-old Dennis Jozic, an Oshawa resident with a four-year bachelor of arts degree in geography from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. “But I didn’t think it would have to be on the line after going to university. I’ve sent out a lot of résumés but there’s nothing out there. There’s so many people who are qualified for everything. I graduated in 1991 and all I’ve been able to find is a temporary summer job at the regional water pollution control plant. It’s just a general laborer’s job; maintenance, clean up, painting, whatever needs to be done. I’m still living at home. I use my parents’ cars. I’d like to get out on my own one day, but I don’t know when. I’m getting discouraged.”
_| “I’m exploring all the options,” says 34-year-old William Brennan, a former front-desk manager at a Sheraton Hotel in Toronto who was laid off in November. “I’d been in the hotel business for 15 years, right out of high school. I held many different positions and worked my way up the ladder. I had 20 or 25 people under me and intended to stay in the business for the rest of my life. When I was laid off, it was just very sudden and
quite a shock. It didn’t come at a very good time, either. I have a sevenweek-old son. He was bom a couple of weeks late, but I got laid off the day before my wife’s due date.”
_| “Working at General Motors would mean freedom, security, independence for me,” says Donna Alderman, 40, a single mother with two daughters, a community college nursing diploma and no job prospects. “I went back to school because I didn’t want to be on mother’s allowance for the rest of my life. I hate being on it, I really do. I completed my degree in June, 1993, but haven’t worked a day as a nurse. It’s very, very discouraging. You don’t like to go to school for 3‘/2 years and have nothing. I’d like to be able to do what I want to without having to count every penny. It would be nice to know that if you need something you’ve got a few extra bucks in the bank to go out and splurge.”
34-year-old Oshawa resident Lori Dervent, who is employed as a sales clerk for a Belleville, Ont.-based chain of retail dairy stores. “I was in line for nine hours and found it emotionally and mentally draining. I had to work afterward and I had no patience. I work full time for minimum wage, no benefits, nothing. There’s no paid holidays but I do take time off whether I can afford it or not. In 1991, I finished a three-year community college course in food and drug technology, which is quality control training for the pharmaceutical and food industries. I had a job in the lab at a milk-processing facility in Timmins for three months. Then, the recession hit and everything fell through. One thing about this GM thing that is hopeful is that maybe the manufacturing sector is opening up. But when I was standing in that line it made me wonder what the Depression was like.” That thought, undoubtedly, occurred to many others as they stood in the numbing cold pursuing what, for thousands of Canadians, is becoming a distant dream—a secure job with a regular paycheque. □ ill “It’s amazing how much the cold will take out of a person,” says
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