Bombardier staff walk off the job

Union predicts strike will go on for a ‘really long time’

A battle over pensions could translate into a prolonged strike at Bombardier's facility in Thunder Bay, Ont., something the union warns could lead to in-demand workers packing up and heading West in search of new jobs if the matter isn't settled quickly.

In mid-July, about 900 Unifor workers at the transportation giant’s factory in northern Ontario walked off the job after negotiators hit a wall at the bargaining table.

Of concern for the union is that the contract currently on the table lacks bones. Not only have benefits been slashed, but the pension plan has taken a hit, according to Dominic Pasqualino, president of Unifor’s local 1075 chapter. In particular, Bombardier wants to move new-hires to a defined contribution (DC) plan, while keeping current employees on a defined benefit (DB) pension.

"We want everyone to have the same pension, it’s incorrect for them to have different pension plans for different people," Pasqualino said. "They have offered no monetary improvements for the current plan we have. Generally speaking, every collective agreement we’ve had had modest improvements or bumps, depending on how the times were. They decided there was going to be no increase at all."

But the pension change is simply the company adopting austerity measures to keep its head above water, said Marc Desforges, a spokesperson from Bombardier’s transportation faction.

"Not one of the employees at the Thunder Bay plant on strike right now are having something taken away from their pension plan," Desforges said, adding that the new-hire policy is a compromise necessary to keep the company afloat. "Tell me how many companies are funding 100 per cent of a pension plan — not only 100 per cent, but a defined benefit plan. And you know that’s a trend, that they don’t exist anymore. We’re not taking that away from them. But on the other hand, it’s true that we cannot continue like this."

High-profile contracts, such as the new Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) streetcars that are slated to roll out on Aug. 31, has put pressure on both sides to come to a consensus.

The concern for Pasqualino is that the globalization of the transportation manufacturing world has led to a loss of guaranteed bargaining unit work — a provision he said the union is fighting for, but which the company refused. Take the new TTC streetcars, for instance, parts of which Pasqualino said are being manufactured in Mexico and China.

"It’s taxpayer dollars that are building these cars, and we’re not here to keep Mexico or China going — we’re here to keep Canada going, Canadians going," Pasqualino added.

As for reaching an agreement — don’t hold your breath.

"My gut feeling is that this is going to go on for a really long time, and I’m afraid of that. The consequences of that are enormous," Pasqualino said. "We have a lot of talented people in the plant, and I think that if this strike drags on — they have families to feed — they’re going to head out West. The skills we have, as a whole, are very much in demand in the Western provinces."

Further complicating the matter is that Bombardier took Unifor to court on July 23. The company filed an injunction and both parties will have to suss out what constitutes appropriate picketing.

According to management, the 400-some-odd workers who are not on strike and are going to work every day, crossing the picket line in the process, are being heckled by those Unifor members on strike.

"We want to make sure our employees that are entitled to go to work, to get to work, in such a fashion that they don’t feel insecure," Desforges explained.

The battle is won — what now?

A strike can be a sensitive subject for both management and a union, to say the least. When negotiations go sour, Gary Furlong, a Toronto-based mediator at Agree Dispute Resolution, said both the union and company must keep relations civil both during and after a strike to keep employee morale up.

"Crossing a picket line can be very emotional, it can be very disrespectful. Management staff are often carrying baggage, just like the workers are," Furlong said. "So it’s critical that management has got a clear plan for a return from strike — to re-engage the workforce, to welcome them back, to not spend time talking about the strike, to focus on workers. Good companies and good unions jointly work on that as well."

For Pasqualino, respect is a major factor propelling the Bombardier strike. A changing dynamic between the union and company has bred a culture of miscommunication and bitter relations, no doubt contributing to the high tension levels at the Thunder Bay plant.

"In the last two years, we’ve had more arbitrations than we’ve ever had before. The union has outright won, or certainly got gains. We had over 130 grievances in the last year — and they were 95 per cent successful in solving those to the union’s favour," Pasqualino explained.

Therefore, it is important to think long-term relationships during such tumultuous times, Furlong added.

"The biggest problem with strikes and lockouts is that it very quickly turns into who’s going to win, and that, by definition, is a win-lose game," he said. "In long-term relationships, just like marriages, in union-management relationships, you can’t have a winner and a loser — it’s not sustainable."

Desforges added that all of the contracts will be fulfilled as promised — namely, that the TTC streetcars will roll out at the end of August as planned — but did not comment on the particulars of getting the work done.

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