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'This is not a game, this is real': Sting shows support for GM Oshawa workers with free show
Published Thursday, February 14, 2019 9:02AM EST Last Updated Thursday, February 14, 2019 6:45PM EST
In a show of solidarity with GM workers, Sting held a special performance in Oshawa this afternoon.
The 17-time Grammy winner and the Toronto cast of his musical, “The Last Ship,” performed the free show at the Tribute Communities Center, where hundreds of employees lined up for a seat.
The singer performed an acoustic rendition of The Police song “Message in a Bottle,” and delved into other hits like “Every Breath You Take.” He was joined by his co-stars for much of the show and together they performed a number of songs from the musical.
“The reason we’re here is we want to show our support and solidarity for your cause here. Because the situation we’re trying to portray onstage is exactly what you’re going through,” Sting told the crowd.
“So we felt it was appropriate to come and show our support for you.”
The show, written by and starring Sting, tells the true story of the singer’s upbringing in a small shipbuilding town, Wallsend, England, and the impact the closure of a shipyard had on the community.
In a one-on-one interview with CTV News Toronto, Sting called the story “a universal one.”
The singer drew parallels onstage to the heartache Oshawa has faced since the November announcement from General Motors that the company would wind down its operations in the city by the end of 2019.
The closure means that an estimated 2,600 unionized workers and 340 other staff will be out of work.
Unifor President Jerry Dias said Sting and Mirvish Productions reached out to him with the proposal and the two met earlier this week. The cast offered to donate their time, Dias said, while Unifor paid “pennies” for the facility.
He said the singer identified with the “plight” of workers in Oshawa and called the similarities between the show and the plant closure “uncanny.”
“Him and I really talked about Oshawa, we talked about his small community in the U.K. where the shipping industry left and caused mass devastation. We really compared notes,” Dias explained.
“It was so eerie about what happened back in the 80s, is exactly what’s transpiring here today.”
The English singer spoke fondly of his experience revisiting the story of his hometown and realizing the extended impact the loss of the shipbuilding industry had on the community. He had little advice for those impacted by the closure, but said the fear among the workers in the crowd was palpable as he performed for them.
“We could see everyone’s faces… I can see the worry on their faces. I can see genuine concern about the future. That was very moving for us as performers, to see that up close,” he said at a news conference following the show.
“This is not a game. This is real.”
Sting went on a criticize GM’s decision, saying the company has a “duty” to support its workers who have dedicated much of their lives to the company.
He called the closure “financial jiggery-pokery” – which is an English term for deceitful or dishonest behaviour.
“They want to pay workers less in another place. That’s not right,” he said.
“We are telling your story and it’s important that your story is heard. We are storytelling creatures and the story is hugely important. This can’t be buried under a political carpet. The world needs to know, Canada needs to get behind you.”
Dias remains confident that the plant could still be saved, noting that they have “the better part of a year” for the two sides to “sit down and get at it.”
He said the concert should be seen as an example of the widespread support the workers have in their fight.
“They see that there is hope. They see that there is a different way of doing things,” Dias said.
“Today’s performance was so important. It was so important because we live in a time where people with influence rarely poke out their head. This is a situation where just the opposite happened today.”
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath echoed some of Dias’ sentiments, urging workers to “never give up and keep fighting.”
“I wouldn’t say there’s no solution,” she said prior to the show in Oshawa.
“Workers, whether they’re unionized or not, need to band together in solidarity and stand up for good jobs… At the end of the day we need every worker to have an ability to put a roof over their heads and food on the table for their family.”
Horwath pointed to a need for a better provincial strategy on the auto sector as the industry pivots to different technology.
“We know what the future is when it comes to automotive – it’s driverless cars, automated cars, it’s electric vehicles – so we should be, as Ontario, on the cutting edge of the manufacturing of these vehicles because we’ve done a lot of the work behind the IT and those kinds of things around those vehicles.”
On the heels of the event in Oshawa, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a $40 million plan over three years for the auto sector. The funding is part of the province’s 10-year plan to embolden the industry’s competitiveness and will focus on modernization.
It’s not clear how or if this plan will impact Oshawa.
Last month, despite meetings with federal representatives, GM refused to budge on the closure.
GM CEO Mary Barra indicated that the company would continue to support its operations in Ingersoll and St. Catharines, and a research and development facility in Markham.
With files from the Canadian Press