Laid-off auto worker says basic income would be a ‘leg up’ to a healthier life

Downtown Oshawa.

General Motors has deep roots in Canada, tracing them back to the R.S. McLaughlin Carriage Company in 1876. McLaughlin manufactured carriages until 1906, and then turned his attention to cars. After a merger took place, by 1915 his company became known as General Motors of Canada.

Canada’s ‘motor city’ was a manufacturing sight to behold in its heyday. For most of a century this dynamic Lake Ontario city pumped out automobiles sure and steady, earning a deserved reputation as a place to find a secure, lifelong job. Thousands of Canadian families counted on it.

In fact, at its peak in the 1980s, GM Oshawa had 23,000 employees. Back then, GM Canada’s Oshawa plant could produce about 900,000 automobiles a year.

Times change.

Just ask Laura Bellevue. The 51-year-old Oshawa woman took a voluntary layoff back in 2008, at the apex of the financial crisis. But that money’s long gone. She’s one of the thousands of Canadians dislodged from traditionally stable manufacturing jobs – and her future couldn’t be more uncertain.

Growing up in Oshawa

Laura grew up in Oshawa with two other siblings, where her father also worked at GM and her mother was a part-time seamstress out of their family home. Her dad’s job, in particular, provided them with a solid life, from health benefits to decent wages.

“We were a typical family, for this city,” she says. “We were stable, blue collar. We knew our neighbours – it was all good.”

When Laura left high school she first took off for four years to go live with her boyfriend at the time out west, in Alberta. They got married and had a daughter, but were divorced within four years. When the relationship fell apart, she made her way back to Oshawa where she has lived ever since. Her ex-husband is not involved in the care of their daughter.

She resisted applying for work at GM, at first, as she tried to carve out something different for herself than what her father did.

“I was looking for a different life. As good as the pay was, my dad never really loved that job. It was dirty work. Monotonous. His stories affected me that way, I suppose,” she says.

But without any additional education, and no real academic ambition, Laura found herself in other kinds of monotonous work. Throughout her 20s and early 30s she did a number of jobs. She drove a taxi for a while. She worked as a cashier at a grocery store. She washed dishes and she worked in retail. She even worked at another factory – but not GM. With the help of the Canada Child Benefit and her mother’s help with childcare, she managed to avoid living in poverty, at least most of the time. It wasn’t an easy life, though. It wasn’t what she had pictured for herself.

GM Bound

After about 15 years of fighting her earlier instincts, she decided to take the plunge and apply at GM – and got a job.

“I don’t know why I waited so long, really,” says Laura. “Out of all the jobs I had, it was definitely the best one.”

From the age of 36 for the next six years Laura stuck with it, working on the line and bringing home more money than she ever had before. Her daughter was in high school at the time and it helped their lifestyle considerably.

The year she started working at GM she also met her second husband. He had his own fledgling landscaping business and they lived quite well, pooling their money together for a time. Unfortunately, this marriage only lasted five years.

Financial Crisis

Once the financial crisis hit in 2007-2008, the whole mood at GM – in all of manufacturing, really — began to change noticeably. This wasn’t lost on Laura.

“Everyone was scared. None of us wanted to lose our jobs,” says Laura.

And yet lose it she did in 2008, along with hundreds of other people. About 8,000 auto jobs have been lost in Durham Region since 2007.

“I didn’t have the seniority to get much from it, and I knew the writing was on the wall. So I took a small buy-out and got out before they’d push me out anyway. That’s how I saw it,” says Laura.

The last 2,700 jobs that exist at GM are in danger, by most estimates. Just last year, Canadian Business magazine quoted Kristin Dziczek, from the Center of Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who said there are “no good forecasts” for the Oshawa plant to continue past 2019.

“This is the plant everybody is worried about,” Dziczek told Canadian Business.

New Reality

For Laura, she has only worked part-time since she left GM, now nine years ago, with her income ebbing and flowing given that she can now only find precarious work – work that is part-time, temporary, contract, and without benefits.

“It’s really changed out there. Not just with GM after the financial crisis – I mean the jobs everywhere just aren’t what they used to be,” she says. “No one hires full time anymore. How are people supposed to live?”

Laura is back at one of the grocery stores she worked at years before, for about 20 to 25 hours a week. She’s got a small one-bedroom apartment in a converted house. She is happy her own daughter is old enough now and living on her own, because she’s not sure how she would have supported her now.

Given that she’s in her 50s at this point, she also thinks she’s experiencing ageism.

“There are jobs at other plants I know I could do. I just don’t think people want to give a 51-year-old a chance, especially if the job is a little physical,” she says.

The Basic Income Factor

When told about the potential for a basic income guarantee to be set up in Canada, Laura thinks this would be an idea that is long overdue.

“Right now I don’t eat as well as I should be, and it’s not like I don’t know that. I don’t go out a lot. I gave up smoking,” she says.

“It might sound strange, but I try to avoid people’s birthdays because I can’t really afford gifts for anyone.”

Laura says a basic income would provide the leg up she needs to simply live better and be a healthier person.

“I think I would feel just a little more human, too.”

According to CanadianManufacturing.com, Dominic Barton from consulting giant McKinsey & Co., says governments need to craft “new social contracts” with Canadians to avoid deepening income inequality.

He said the gulf between rich and poor could become wider as those Canadians who aren’t on the leading edge of technological change are left behind. Barton told Canadian Manufacturing magazine that about 40 per cent of existing Canadian jobs will disappear over the next decade due to automation.

As for Laura, she says she will continue to struggle through her difficulties and will try to “keep the faith” that something better might be around the corner.

“This basic income idea sounds incredible to me,” she says. “Right now I spend way too much time worrying and feeling anxious. I know I’m not the only one in this boat.”