By Paul Pugh
The Bombardier Thunder Bay plant produces mass transit rail vehicles (subway cars, street cars, commuter trains). Half of the vehicles are for transit authorities in Canada, the other half for U.S. transit authorities and some for overseas. Production and skilled trades workers at the plant are represented by CAW Local 1075, and office workers by COPE Local 81. In December 2003, mass lay offs reduced the plant’s workforce from around 1,000, to fewer than 450. The lay offs were due to reduced spending on mass transit by governments in Canada and the U.S. The Thunder Bay plant struggled to remain open, on small orders of 20 vehicles or fewer.
A glimmer of hope emerged, as the Toronto & York Region Labour Council launched a campaign aimed at pressuring the Ontario government to increase TTC funding. Finally, in response to political pressure on the issues of growing pollution and urban congestion, both the Ontario and federal governments announced funding for public transit from the gasoline tax. TTC announced plans to purchase new subway vehicles. This positive news was countered when the McGuinty government terminated longstanding policy favouring Ontario manufacture of transit vehicles. This policy had been in place for decades, regardless of which party was in power, from Bill Davis’ Conservatives, to Peterson’s Liberals, Bob Rae’s NDP, and even Mike Harris’ Conservatives.
With the future of the plant at stake, we launched a campaign, calling for Canadian content in government procurement, aiming at all three levels of government. We had a common interest with the employer, Bombardier, in securing the work, so there was cooperation, while we each ran our own campaigns. From the start, we had the full support and assistance of our national union, CAW, with President Buzz Hargrove assigning staff to key tasks, and intervening, in person, to speak with political leaders. Our Local’s membership was fully involved, writing letters, signing petitions, demonstrating at the plant gate and at politicians’ offices. We made deputations, presented briefs, and argued our case to every level of government, in Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Ottawa. COPE Local 81, was also fully involved. Locally, elected political representatives from all levels supported us: the Mayor and City Council sent letters to senior levels of government, area MPPs lobbied Premier McGuinty and the Minister of Transport, and MP Ken Boshcoff, lobbied the federal government and members of his caucus. Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce President Mary Long Irwin, won over support from the Ontario Chamber and the Toronto Board of Trade.
In July 2005, NDP Federal Leader Jack Layton and Olivia Chow (then Vice Chair of the TTC) on a visit to Thunder Bay, toured the plant. On her return to Toronto, Chow made a motion that the TTC enter into sole source negotiations with Bombardier for the subway cars. With support from Toronto Mayor David Miller, TTC Chair Howard Moscoe and the TTC NDP caucus, Olivia Chow’s motion won the support of the TTC.
Conservative City Councillors attacked the Mayor and Chair of the Toronto Transit Commission for sourcing from Bombardier. They demanded that the process be open to tenders from German-based Siemens, which claimed it could bring in a lower price by building the cars in China.
CAW and Toronto labour fought back. Under the banner “Made in Canada Matters,” the Toronto and York Region Labour Council linked the fight to protecting good-paying manufacturing jobs. Ontario had lost 85,000 such jobs in the past year. Twenty firms in the Toronto region, along with others across Ontario, supply the Thunder Bay Bombardier plant. Together they employ thousands of workers.
Over 5,000 petition cards signed by Toronto unionists and others, were turned over to Toronto’s Mayor at a City Hall rally. Labour Council successfully brought into its campaign, community groups and neighbourhood agencies. As a spokesperson from the African Canadian Social Development Council told the rally, newcomer communities are very worried about the loss of decent jobs.
The campaign culminated at the Toronto City Council meeting in December 2006. With the Council chambers packed during the seven-hour debate with union activists along with the Thunder Bay Mayor and Councillors, Toronto City Council voted 25-18 to support the TTC’s purchase of new subway cars from Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant.
Since then, the campaign has continued, resulting in Premier McGuinty’s April 2008 announcement of a 25% Canadian content policy for transit vehicles purchased with Ontario financing. This policy is inadequate, but it is a step in the direction of meeting policies in place in the U.S., European Union, and elsewhere. Right-wing economic ideology holds that government procurement should be tendered in order to allow market competition determine the best possible outcome, but as trade unionists, we know the unfettered market does not ensure best outcomes. That is why we fight for labour, environmental, food inspection, building codes, and many other forms of legislation, all designed to correct the inequalities and injustices of the market. We also need to campaign for government economic policies that provide for decent jobs and balanced regional economic development. We have had enough of reliance on free trade and market outcomes, our livelihoods and the future of our country is at stake.