On the Job
Then and Now
At that time there was no unemployment insurance and welfare was very hard to get
By Bill Signal
Having lived on McDonald Avenue as a boy (near Danforth and Warden), I can still remember the day they closed the Nash Rambler car plant at Victoria Park and Danforth. My mother told me to stay home and not to visit various friends that lived on the street; I wasn’t sure why. McDonald was, and still is, a dead end street where as a child you could play any game you wanted with virtually no fear of cars running you over.
I obeyed my mother’s request for a while then went outside to play. I found a few of my friends and asked if they wanted to play baseball or hide and seek. The younger kids wanted to play hide and seek, in hopes of avoiding the shame of being chosen last for baseball teams. After a while one of my friends told me that his family was going to move away that night. I asked why and he did not know; all he knew was that he was moving and was not supposed to tell anyone.
I found out later that his family had been renting the house they lived in and could not pay the rent because his father had been let go from the car plant. I never saw this friend again, nor do I know where his family went.
This happened in the 1950s. Most of the people on the street had come from the British Isles. Every weekend some family was having a party and you could hear Scottish or Irish music coming from their homes But not the day of the car plant closing. Everyone on the street was angry that day. Parents were hollering at each other, and children were confused and anxious. (My father didn’t work at the car plant. He worked on the railroad as a labourer five and a half days each week). I asked my mother why everyone was so angry and she told me that many of our neighbours worked for the car plant and now had neither a job nor any money. I can remember losing four more friends that summer, most of whom moved away during the night. Thankfully, my best friend wasn’t among them. I found out later that his father was a carpenter, and did not work at the car plant. That summer, I started to make new friends who moved into those empty houses.
Later in life, I realized that at that time, there was no unemployment insurance and welfare was very hard to get.
Today, when a plant closes, workers have protection packages. Even if the company has gone bankrupt, the provincial government covers a portion of the workers’ pension plan. In the federal sector, wages are paid before any bank gets its hands on the company’s remaining assets. Workers may collect unemployment insurance after a two-week waiting period. And mortgage holders, given appropriate notice, must wait a specified length of time before they may foreclose. During this time period, homeowners may list the house for sale, and avoid losing their entire investment.
Yes, things are better these days, due largely to the efforts of unions. Most union members do not work more than 40 hours each week. Federal law ensures that non-union workers receive overtime pay if they exceed 44 hours of work in a week. My father told me that in the 1940’s, there were no laws protecting workers from dismissal with or without cause. Unions worked hard in demanding that government acknowledge and deal with the existence of unfair employer practices. Unions negotiated collective agreements that included coffee breaks , specified hours of work, maternity leave, severance pay, and pensions.
Some people feel that unions no longer serve their original purpose, and in fact, create more difficulties than they alleviate. Unions speak on behalf of employees as a group.
We need unions today as much as we needed them in the 1940s. Without them, it would be tremendously difficult to effect positive changes vis-à-vis issues of environmental concern, workplace injury, trade training, and homeowner protection, and the implementation of fair labour laws could be jeopardized.