Without leadership Bombardier rail car plant in Thunder Bay risks closure

As originally published by The Toronto Star

By Jerry Dias

Now more than ever, Canadian workers need our political leaders to act swiftly and decisively to support them, their families and communities.

As the cascading economic crisis grows worse each day in tandem with daily record-breaking COVID-19 case counts, no such leadership has stepped up for the hundreds of workers in the Bombardier Thunder Bay plant.

With only enough work to sustain itself until the end of this year and under new ownership by Alstom, based in France, the threat of a permanent closure has never been more real.

The threat this situation poses to the livelihood of hundreds workers, their families and the economy is enormous. There are short and long-term solutions. The first requires only the stroke of a pen.

The City of Toronto has already agreed to fund its portion of transit vehicle purchases from Bombardier, including 60 new streetcars and 420 subway cars. However, to date, neither Ottawa nor Queen’s Park has agreed to come to the table and ante up their share.

All they have to do is sign on, the cars get built and the jobs get created in Thunder Bay and Toronto. It’s just that simple.

We cannot allow an order book to stand empty at a plant so vital to Ontario’s economy, under new offshore ownership no less, and not expect a catastrophe.

It is unacceptable to let this scenario play out with politicians shrugging off their fundamental responsibility to lead at this crucial moment.

We know that Toronto’s transit system ultimately needs these vehicles to create more capacity. This need has been known and identified repeatedly at every level of government.

Before COVID-19, the transit system in Toronto was already well over capacity. Today, more room is needed for social distancing protocols. In the future, the system will still need these vehicles if we’re going to have any hope of a rapid economic recovery.

Our union has held numerous meetings for more than two years with politicians of all stripes. We were joined by the City of Thunder Bay, the Chamber of Commerce and Bombardier Transportation who all supported the efforts to no avail.

Time is a luxury the workers in Thunder Bay don’t have. As political foot-dragging and partisan finger-pointing continues, workers and their families face an increasingly uncertain future. We’re at serious risk of losing a vital part of our industrial capacity that will almost certainly move us further away from an economic recovery that can’t come soon enough.

Besides the jobs at the Thunder Bay plant, there’s the jobs at supplier plants, its contractors and all the businesses that benefit from the good wages its workers earn.

A strong post-pandemic recovery has to be based on good jobs. We can’t afford to put these good jobs at any further risk. Already, too many Bombardier workers are on layoff awaiting new contracts. Once the federal and provincial governments sign off, we can secure those jobs and bring back more.

We need to prevent these situations from happening in the first place. I can recall the excruciating moment in 2018 when the federal government chose to award a VIA Rail contract to a Siemens plant in California. That order should have gone to Bombardier to support Canadian manufacturing. Hundreds of millions of dollars were siphoned away from Ontario.

It’s high time we start seeing genuine long-term support for our manufacturing workers with ‘Buy Canadian’ policies. These exist already in several jurisdictions, including the United States. More importantly, they work.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the pandemic, it’s that a strong and well-supported manufacturing base is vital to our economy.

When global medical supplies dried up, it was Bombardier workers who came through and manufactured the ventilators our province needed. As the second wave of the pandemic continues, we may very well need them again.

These workers had our backs, and now our politicians should have theirs.