It’s finally over. What had begun as a labour dispute ended this week in sad resignation. The workers at ElectroMotive finally reached a severance deal with Caterpillar Inc. There was a touch of grace at the end as the union negotiating team successfully wrestled some benefit from a company that in the end didn’t buckle so much to worker demands as it did to the realization that a community stood behind its own.
For those of our beleaguered city who stood with the workers on the line for weeks there is sense of deep and abiding loss that only comes from sharing hardship with others. The workers themselves seized the most opportune of moments and chose to fill it with a kind of dignified grace that was exceptional for people facing the end of an era. The entire country, and even parts of the world, watched. What an easy time to make a mess of it, to turn to legitimate anger and even violence at a fate that had taken a cold turn. They would hear none of it. Each day they showed up, stoked the fires in the bins, warmed themselves with coffee, waved to passersby, and simply outshone in their destitution what a company couldn’t do in its wealth. Yes, the nation was watching, and they chose those moments to show that dignity and self-respect still abides in our city. In a word, they had a sense of tragic “grandeur.”
Someone once said that you have to let go of something to find out if it was really there. That was true in this case. For 61 years Londoners passed by the big plant, little realizing that within it was manufactured a world-class product, welded together with an artisan’s skill of excellence. We never knew.
Within those walls worked a people who sat on non-profit boards, engaged in citizen activism, donated huge sums to charities, built humanitarian projects with their own hands, spoke out for social justice in Canada and around the world, took a special interest in the vulnerable, and who formed much of the critical mass of social compassion that has stood this city proud for decades. We never knew.
They were our neighbours, our kids’ sports coaches, fellow church members, military veterans, peace activists, community builders, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, citizens, Canadians. We just never really knew.
We had heard of the diesel engines coming out of that place and how they were the elite of machines. They hauled precious cargo in continents around the world. There were waiting lists for the finely crafted machines. The work quality was of such that few trades people in the world could duplicate it. We never knew.
Well, we know now because we have just lost so much of that. These fine qualities were in our collective midst and we are only just realizing it now that it’s finished. I admit to my own tears in this drama – not just tears from a sense of loss but from an awareness that I never took the time to realize a community treasure when we had one.
Yet I recall those times on the line and how we would often laugh together. There was fellowship of suspended grief growing on that line – suspended because we still took joy in getting to know one another in sorrow the way we never did in times of plenty. I smile even now, not because it’s over but because it actually happened. A good people in our midst drew us out as a community in ways we weren’t used to and they bettered us by their behavior and restraint. Perhaps in the end of all this drama we can capture a collective grace we never possessed at its beginning. There’s an art to ending things well and we’ve captured it.
Jean Paul Richter was fond of saying, “Our feelings are always purest and most glowing in the hour of meeting and of farewell.” Sadly, for our community the beginning and the end took place in a fraction of time. Yet in that rush of pressed emotion we grew up as a community. We developed a backbone and some citizen character in the process. We are more mature for the process.
To the folks at Caterpillar, I say I hoped for better. But to the EMD workers you surpassed my expectations. Thank you for all you did, not just for our community, our reputation, our productivity, or our children, but for us. Thank you for what you did for me. I am a better citizen because of your signature dignity in time of sadness. There will be a hole in our community life where a unique workforce once resided.
As a community we can only conclude such thoughts with the words from the Prophet:
If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song. And if our hands should meet in another dream, we shall build another tower in the sky.
From a city bettered by how you handled the end, we can only promise to fight for a new beginning that will place dignified and productive work once again at the centre of our lives and our economy. Adieu, my friends. Merci. Be in God’s care.