(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- For generations, the face of General Motors in Oshawa, Ont., was its most prominent resident: Robert Samuel “Sam” McLaughlin. Sam and his older brother George helped build the company their father founded in 1867 into the McLaughlin Carriage Works, the largest carriage maker in the British Empire.

In 1908 it transitioned into McLaughlin Motor Car Co., using Buick engines, and General Motors bought it a decade later. Sam stayed on, serving as president of GM Canada for 27 years and chairman of the board from 1945 until his death in 1972.

McLaughlin and his wife, Adelaide, were dedicated local philanthropists, funding everything from health care to education to art; the McLaughlin name is everywhere in Oshawa. During the Depression, McLaughlin hired laid-off GM workers from his factory to do massive renovations on Parkwood, the family’s Beaux Arts estate. 

In World War II the plant converted to wartime production, and the couple hosted fundraisers for the troops at their house. British intelligence agents received underwater explosives training in the McLaughlin’s indoor swimming pool. The home’s billiards room served as the officers’ Sunday afternoon mess. Now it’s a museum.

“We had generations where you could come out of Grade 10 and get a fantastic-paying job that put the next generation through university,” says Samantha George, the museum’s curator. “They used to call it Generous Motors.”

While it’s easy to view the past through a sepia glow, hiring skilled workers at the house during the Depression also bought McLaughlin loyalty at a time when the rise of organized labor was shifting the balance of power toward workers.

Now, as globalization continues to reshape the industry, that shift has reversed. The number of workers in Oshawa will be a fraction of what the plant once supported. And as work gets more specialized, the city’s mayor wonders what will replace the middle-class bedrock of communities.

“Where are we going to compete in the global economy as it goes forward? And how will our citizens be able to provide for their families?” Dan Carter says from his city hall office, tucked between the Robert McLaughlin Gallery and the McLaughlin Public Library. The lopsided distribution of wealth, Carter says, is a national threat that the government needs to do more to address. “Because if we keep this up, all of us are going to be working three jobs.”

Read more: GM Transforms Who Wins, Who Loses in the Future of Work