A Jobless City

Welland, Ontario Canada was once a thriving community of 45,000 with many manufacturing industries. Welland is located in the central part of the Niagara Region close to Niagara Falls. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there were many large factories which produced steel, carbon products, farm equipment, automotive parts, vacuum cleaners, and many other things. Most people who lived here, men and women included, worked in these factories. Many have gotten the opportunity to retire but so many others have become jobless, as one by one each of these facilities closed down. The last closure was John Deere almost 2 years ago.

As of 2011, there were only a couple plants left. On March 1, 2011, it was announced that Henniges Automotive is closing at the end of the year. This leaves over 300 more people out of work. The seniority ranges from 18 to over 30 years service that these people have. I was once employed there for 15 ½ years until a work related neck and back injury caused my termination in December 2007. My husband is presently working at Henniges and has 24 years service. There were 450 employees when I started in 1992, peaking to over 1200 then reduced to over 300 in the last 19 years.

Back in the late 1990’s to mid 2000’s, Henniges , formerly known as GDX, Gencorp, Diversatech, and General Tire, was in full boom in the workforce. There were over 1200 employees thus causing the company to add more space to accommodate the work force. Since my termination, there were approximately 700 and within 3 ½ years that was cut in half. This company has been bought and sold many times in the last decade. The present owners are Little John and Winchurch, which are American based equity firms and are doing very well financially. These particular companies, unlike some of the others which closed, are nowhere near bankruptcy nor having financial difficulty.

Many people have their opinions due to Henniges being a unionized company. Many think union greed is the cause of this closure. This is not the case. A Henniges employee is making $20.48/hr which is double the minimum wage of $10.25/hr. When my husband started in 1987, he was making $11.74/hr and minimum wage was $4.50/hr. The employees also took concessions in a contract signed June 2007 which required a wage freeze, 10 % deductible towards benefits, and a few other things were given up. Most understood that this needed to be done to remain competitive in the job market and to keep their jobs.

In June 2010, the contract was renewed with a 1 % raise for each year. The pension was also changed thus resulting in employees having to pay into their own pension as an RSP and the company making contributions also. Prior to this, the employees never had to pay into their own pension. So once again, the employees took concessions. The company led the employees to believe that they would have work for the 3 year term of this contract which would have been until June 2013. Although not really job security, Henniges employees felt they had 3 more years of work. This would help those close to retirement to get the time needed to retire with full pension. It also gave the balance of employees 3 more years to not have to worry about their jobs thus a large majority vote in favour of this contract. Prior to this contract, approximately 90 employees retired due to fear of what could happen to their pensions. Many of these people are still in their 40’s and 50’s due to starting their job at a young age. They retired with a reduced pension because of their youth but their fear of what could happen forced them to make this decision. Many are working part time at places like Walmart, etc to supplement their pension.

Only 8 months after this contract was started, Henniges announced that they would be closing the plant between September and December 2011. The union offered to reopen the contract and take concessions. The company claimed that it wasn’t the employees’ wage/benefits issue. They said everyone had shown overall great productivity, good quality parts, and a reduction in absenteeism. The problem was the cost to run the facility. In this wonderful country of Canada, the taxes to run this plant were extremely high, as were the utilities. The government offered no tax incentives nor did they offer any utility incentives. The jobs are being moved to the United States where their government offers huge tax breaks, huge utility breaks, and other financial incentives to bring jobs there. Some of the jobs are going to Mexico as they make very little wage and corporate costs are low. A few jobs are remaining in Canada at another facility which is newer and smaller thus easier to maintain.

This company opened in 1920 and is the oldest manufacturing facility in Welland. It is a rubber manufacturing plant which has produced everything from hockey pucks and bowling balls (years ago) to vehicle sealing for which they have been doing for 40 years. The Welland facility was the flag ship plant for Henniges. It was the money maker due to their high quality work. General Motors is/was the primary customer but they also make/made parts for Ford and Chrysler. This company has a history in Welland since shortly after World War 1. In World War 2, manufacturing was done primarily by women. As years have gone by, this company has changed with the times and managed to stay open while all others were closing. It is a huge shock to the employees and other residents of our city that Henniges will soon be gone.

Welland was a manufacturing town. For most people who live here, factory work is all they know. Many generations have worked in these plants. Now, Welland is a crime ridden ghost town. Once known as the Rose City, it is now the welfare city. What has our government done to save this city? Absolutely nothing. In fact, last year the Ontario government added an additional 5 % Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) to our pre existing 8 % Provincial Sales Tax. So not only are we all losing our jobs but have to pay 13 % tax on most everything we buy.

Although not really affordable due to $1.31 per litre for gas, I did take a drive around town last week. I was appalled when I looked at everything within a couple hours. There are blocks of abandoned factories with broken windows and an eerie feeling of death emanating from them. As a citizen of this city, I was in tears as I saw what had become of Welland. I will also mention that our city’s tax dollars, which come out of our municipal taxes, is paying for all these abandoned buildings. Welland’s land tax rates are in the top 5 highest percentage in Ontario. How is the unemployed going to keep their homes when they are jobless and over taxed? It is virtually impossible.

The city is squandering money, in my opinion, on trying to make the downtown sector look more appealing. They built a new city hall/library a few years ago. The city hall and library we had were city landmarks. I personally see no purpose in this as no one shops downtown in this millennium. We go to the mall. Our city has gone down the toilet as the crime increases, drug use is abundant, the roads are full of potholes, and the city looks like a dump. Welland is closing 3 primary schools and building a new school for the “poor”. Not only is this city leaving more abandoned buildings but is now segregating our community by labeling schools. This sickens me to death and is no way for our children to be growing up as they watch their parents lose their jobs and they have to go to the “poor” school. Thanks to our politicians who have done nothing to help a once prosperous city, turn into a ghetto.

Another issue I have which has been either heard or read is that the unions are the cause of these plant closures. They call it “union greed”. I am sick of hearing this as I am well aware of how much corporate greed is out there. It’s all about making money for these companies with or without a union. I have worked at non- unionized companies with compatible wages/benefits to the unionized companies. In fact, I worked at a factory that was non- unionized which had better wages/benefits. That company also closed about 5 years ago. If we’re going to talk of union greed then we should be talking of those government jobs which people are paid by our tax dollar.

I will use General Motors as an example since they are one of the highest paid manufacturing facilities. There is a GM in St. Catharines which is 15 minutes from Welland. In the 1970’s, GM St. Catharines employed over 10,000 workers. Now, their workforce is under 2,000 with the lowest seniority at around 25 years. At GM a worker makes around $70,000/year before taxes. At Henniges, a worker makes around $42,000/year before taxes. As these GM workers were making their so called “high wages”, the company was making billions of dollars in profit annually. This was going on for many years. What did GM do with their money to end up bankrupt a few years ago? It sure wasn’t “union greed”. It was corporate greed, money mismanagement, and the government’s free trade.

The manufacturing sector seems to be labeled as “union greed’ when any of these facilities close down. What people don’t realize is that it is these people who are a huge contributor to the economy. These are a large majority of people who make the large purchases of homes, cars, etc. They are the backbone of the economy. When one of the plants closes, it has a ripple effect to other small businesses. Everything from fast food places to retail are affected by production plant closures. I also want to mention that factory work is hard on the body thus causing injuries and early onset arthritis. Regardless of rate of pay, no amount of money can make up for the chronic pain that some workers suffer. I am living proof of how my injuries have taken my quality of life. The point I’m trying to make is “union greed” being the primary cause for plant closures is not the case.

Now, let’s look at government jobs at the federal, provincial, and municipal level. I can’t think of any without unions and most make more money than the unionized factory worker. Some examples would be postal workers, transit drivers, city construction workers, teachers, police, and the list goes on and on. My sister is a transit driver in London, Ontario. She has been doing this for 11 years and makes $27/hr for this unskilled labour. The London Transit went on strike in late 2009 for many reasons but one was pay increase. This is on the tax payers’ dime (excluding fare to ride) but still supplemented by tax dollars. My husband has been doing his factory job at Henniges for over twice as long making $6.50/hr less. For those who want to talk of “union greed”, I would think “union greed” on the tax dollar should be an issue. Difference is these jobs are needed thus can’t move London Transit to Mexico but manufacturing jobs can go.

I am overly sick of the government and their lack of support for keeping manufacturing jobs in Ontario while most government workers seem to always be on strike for something. Henniges had 1 strike in the 24 years my husband worked there which lasted less than 3 days. I only have good things to say about the Steelworkers union representatives of Henniges employees. This strike was resolved quickly. This union and it’s members were not greedy. This company, at that time, had the largest amount of employees in their 90 years of business and was doing well at the Welland facility. When the economy started to downslide, the workers took concessions. I see no “union greed” there. Also, factor in the higher cost of living in an overly taxed city and the introduction of the 5 % HST in 2010, these employees took a good sized loss to keep their jobs.

The whole situation of our city is sad. As the baby boomers age, Welland will be the country’s biggest retirement villa. Many of our unemployed factory workers have lost their jobs after 20 or more years service. Some never graduated high school as that wasn’t a requirement years ago. These people have mortgages, debt, kids going to college, and other bills. It’s very hard to live in a country which is over taxed even for those working. Bankruptcy is on the rise. There’s nothing left for employment in our area, including the surrounding Niagara Region. Minimum wage jobs are very hard to get also as I have been through the job search. Employers want people with experience and who are younger. I gave up on the job search 2 years ago as it was a nightmare. I had only factory work on my resume. My family adjusted to these changes with my job loss but now is in dire fear of our futures. I feel bad for my fellow Henniges coworkers as they were a second family to me for a long time.

I realize that Welland isn’t the only city in Canada and the U.S. where manufacturing facilities are closing. I know most everything is made in China, Mexico, and various other countries where labour is cheap and child labour is predominant. These countries, in time, will change and so will their laws. Manufacturing jobs may come back to Canada and the U.S. In the meantime, for anything manufactured in these other countries, caveat emptor. You get what you pay for…that is for those who are fortunate enough to still have a job. Chances are if it’s made cheap, it is cheap.

My prayers go out to all Henniges employees, all others who are still jobless from all the other plant closures in Welland and Niagara. I feel for everyone who worked hard to try to make a life for themselves while busting their butts to give these corporations and our government money to squander. They thanked us all by throwing us to the streets. And this is Canada which will be a third world country someday. The money wasted on war, re-elections, and other unnecessary spending by our government is horrific while Canadian citizens are living on the streets.

I also want to give special thanks to the federal, provincial, and municipal governments who sat back and watched all this happen and did nothing.