Ont. needs a job protection commissioner (Guest commentary)

Ontario has lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs since 2004

The manufacturing sector is the bedrock of Ontario’s economy. Factories, plants and mills are the biggest employers, providing good jobs for more than one million Ontarians. They are the kind of good-paying jobs with benefits that give people the opportunity to buy a home, raise a family and make meaningful contributions to their community.

But there’s a problem in Ontario’s manufacturing heartland — a jobs crisis. Since the Liberals under Premier Dalton McGuinty came to power in 2004, more than 140,000 workers in the manufacturing sector have lost their jobs. That includes thousands of people in the forestry industry. Every week we hear about another mill or factory laying off staff or shutting down. Most recently, workers at Tembec’s mill in Timmins lost their jobs. So did a whole shift at Ford in Oakville and thousands of auto parts workers across southern Ontario. These aren’t just numbers. They’re people with families, mortgages and car payments. They’re people who work hard and play by the rules so they can make a decent living for their families. Ontario can sustain the good-paying manufacturing and forestry jobs it’s losing. A high-quality workforce, stable and favourable hydro electricity rates, the cost advantages of the Medicare system, pro-industry trade measures and a competitively-priced Canadian dollar combined to build Ontario’s manufacturing base.

The high-quality workforce is still here, but soaring hydro rates, flawed trade initiatives, and the rise in the value of the Canadian dollar are delivering a knockout blow that is leaving Ontario’s manufacturing and resource-based communities reeling.

There are solutions, one of which is the New Democratic Party’s Job Protection Act. If passed, the bill would establish a Job Protection Commissioner in Ontario to help at-risk companies overcome financial difficulties to sustain good jobs.

The Job Protection Commissioner would be a strong, energetic, effective jobs advocate — an honest broker with a clear mandate to bring workers, employers, creditors, investors and community leaders together to deal with troubles before they get out of hand and put troubled businesses back on a solid footing, to protect communities and sustain good jobs.

Here’s how the bill would work. When it’s apparent an industry is threatened, even before companies get into financial difficulties, the Job Protection Commissioner would step in to bring all parties together, to bring the focus of government to bear on the situation and help negotiate new deals with banks, employees and creditors to keep plants running and people working.

The bill is based on British Columbia’s successful Jobs Protection Commissioner. Over an 11-year lifespan, between 1990 and 2001, it saved 75,000 good B.C. jobs.

That included 30 jobs at Lytton Lumber in Lytton, B.C. In 1991, a problem with a lumber shipment to Europe caused the bank to call in a $500,000 loan. For a small company, the bank’s decision was enough to bury the firm. But the Job Protection Commissioner arranged a government-backed loan guarantee, which gave the company breathing room for one year, when it received an insurance settlement relating to a European shipment. Looking back, company official Chuck O’Connor said that if the commissioner hadn’t offered the company assistance with the financial problem, “we would have been dead.”

B.C.’s legislation was introduced by a Social Credit government, supported by an NDP opposition and upheld when the NDP became government. Here in Ontario, even the Progressive Conservatives have shown their support for this worthwhile initiative.

Regrettably, the McGuinty Liberals have given no indication they will support this legislation. But we need to pass the NDP’s Job Protection Act. This legislation, combined with an effective hydro strategy, a strengthened public health-care system and effective labour and economic policies, will preserve the manufacturing economy and make a real difference in the lives of working families worried about their jobs.

Howard Hampton is the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party. He can be reached at (416) 325-8300.

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