Some Canadian factory workers got a Valentine’s gift from an unlikely source last week – Sting. The aging British rocker took the cast of his stage show The Last Ship to Oshawa, Ontario to perform a show for GM factory workers about to lose their jobs in the one-time center of the Canadian auto industry.
The Last Ship is a musical Sting created that roughly tells the story of his youth, growing up near Newcastle, England and the devastating effects the closing of the once mighty Swan Hunters Shipyards had on the community. The parallels weren’t lost on the former-Police frontman.
“We wanted to come here and express our solidarity, and our support for (the workers’) struggle. It’s quite uncanny the parallel of what we’re doing on stage every night and what we’re seeing here,” he said. “It should be a moral support system. It’s about loyalty. These workers have loyally given their lives to the company. It’s a two-way street…you can’t just walk away.
“I can see the worry on their faces,” he added, “That was very moving. This is not a game. … this is financial jiggery-pokery. They just want to pay workers less somewhere else. That’s not right.”
He was dressed casually in old jeans and a gray sweatshirt, and played acoustic versions of Police hits like “Every Breath You Take” and “Message in A Bottle” as well as the The Last Ship, with some of the cast wearing “Save Oshawa GM” shirts. He invited one factory worker up on stage to address the crowd in the Tribute Communties Centre (not that coincidentally, the 3000 seat arena was until recently the “General Motors Centre” ) about the effects the factory closings would have on her family. The city about 30 miles from Toronto was once almost entirely-based on GM factory jobs, with the downtown featuring old car factories and sprawling plants producing cars, trucks and car batteries near the lake. In its heyday in the ’70s, they employed well over 20 000. Today one factory is open, with fewer than 3000 workers and that is scheduled to shut later this year. Sting urged them to fight and not let it be “The Last Car.”
The Last Ship opened in Chicago in 2014, and then played on Broadway, toured England and recently has played in Toronto (with Sting himself playing a lead character, something he generally hadn’t done before.) The 2013 soundtrack album from it was Sting’s 12th solo (and 17th including The Police) top 20 album in the U.S. despite sounding both more “mature” and more folk-oriented than most of his work. Surprisingly, it went double platinum in Poland where it topped the charts.
Perhaps Sting’s fondness for Oshawa might reflect his memory of the early days of The Police. They played their first truly large North American concert – better than 50 000 people in fact- only a few miles away at Mosport Park nearly 40 years ago.