THUNDER BAY — As more than 500 workers at the Thunder Bay Bombardier plant wait to learn if they will be among those laid off in November, executives with the company say they remain committed to the local operation and will continue to work to provide a vision for an optimistic future.
It was announced on Wednesday that 550 workers of the more than 1,100 at the Thunder Bay Bombardier plant will be served with layoff notices on Thursday. The layoffs will take effect the first week of November.
“I don’t think it’s much of a surprise,” said Keith Monty, who has worked in the warehouse at the plant for eight years. “There has been a lot of talk on the shop floor. We knew there was going to be layoffs coming from the way things have been going here.”
Two major contracts with Metrolinx and the Toronto Transit Commission are expected to be completed by the end of 2019 and the company and Unifor said earlier this year that if no additional contracts are signed, there would be layoffs.
Dominic Pasqualino, president of Unifor Local 1075, said all the members were aware the contracts were coming to an end, but that doesn’t make the news of layoffs any easier to swallow.
“They are concerned about making their mortgage payments and being able to take their kids to hockey,” he said.
“I don’t have any good answers other than we have talked to every level of government and we will continue to talk to them. I know Bombardier treasures this plant. We’ve produced a lot of cars for them in the past and I think it’s a money maker for Bombardier. The quality is good, the production rate is good, and it’s important the government responds to that.”
For more than six months, Bombardier has been in discussion with all levels of government to secure contracts. The federal government urged the province to protect jobs in Thunder Bay, while last month, the province sent a mandate letter to Metrolinx to order 36 new bi-level cars to be built at the plant.
After the 550 layoffs were announced, the federal and provincial governments pointed the finger at one another. But passing blame does not help the situation in Thunder Bay and Pasqualino said the workers need contracts signed sooner rather than later, because even with 500 workers leaving the shop floor in November, it will get worse.
“I believe the number can even climb higher than that,” Pasqualino said. “We are looking at the plant having very few people in January unless we get some contracts signed today.”
Cyclical nature of industry
Bombardier chief operating officer for the Americas, David Van Der Wee, was in Thunder Bay again on Wednesday for a town hall meeting where he thanked the employees for all their hard work and outlined what the company is doing to ensure a positive future for the local operation.
“I am extremely proud of what this team has done,” he said. “That’s what makes these kinds of discussions so much more difficult. I feel for what it means for them, because I see an individual in the shop and behind that individual there can be a family, a community involved here, that’s what makes that more difficult. But I think Thunder Bay as a plant has done everything it can do to prove that they are absolutely a valued proposition for the people of Ontario.”
Van Der Wee added that this is a cyclical industry and those who have worked at the plant for many years understand that layoffs come with this type of work.
“Our workers, some of them are used to it,” he said. “Projects come, projects go. The reason we have a bit more of a stressful situation this time is because both projects are coming to an end at the exact same time.”
Pasqualino, who has worked at the plant for more than 30 years, said he has seen staffing levels go as low as 250 people, though never below 700 in the last eight years.
But a lot has changed in the last 30 years, including the U.S. market and content regulations that restricts the level of content being shipped south of the border.
Unlike past layoffs, however, this time there is no work in the pipeline, at least not yet, which is what Van Der Wee said he is working to change.
“What’s different today is In the past, some of that pipeline, even though it wasn’t today or tomorrow, you could see it and it was in the next six, eight, or 10 months,” he said. “We don’t see it today. We need to create that visibility and creating that visibility will give our employees what they have had in the past.”
Even if new contracts are signed, it can take a plant between 14 and 18 months to get production moving again once parts are ordered and a supply chain reestablished.
Van Der Wee said Bombardier will continue to work with all levels of government and build on the positive responses it has received in the last six months.
“Everybody understands what the situation is and everybody is willing to help,” he said. “We can see some of that positive response manifest, which is an offer for 36 bi-levels.”
The contract for those 36-bi-level cars has not yet been signed, but Van Der Wee said he is confident they will be able to confirm that contact shortly.
But that will not be enough to ensure the long-term future of the plant and everyone is hopeful something much more substantial will come down the pipeline very soon.
“We need all government levels speak to one another and help us to do our best to allow this plant to continue at the rapid rate that we are doing cars right now,” Pasqualino said. “We are doing LRV cars one every three days and we are building bi-level Go Trains at one car every two days. I think that is a record amount of rate and we are looking to continue that.”
“We’ve all worked so hard to get to where we’re at,” Monty said. “We have an awesome production line going on. It’s kind of a disappointment that we are doing so good and now we are going to get bumped around and moved around.”