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With 11,000 aerospace workers on its membership roster, Unifor is concerned about maintaining stable, high-paying industry jobs from coast to coast.
That’s why a delegation from Canada’s largest private sector union travelled to Ottawa from April 16 to 19, 2018, to meet with government officials and impress upon them how crucial aerospace investment is to this country’s ability to compete on the world stage.
A policy paper published by the union just ahead of Unifor’s visit to Ottawa urges government to collaborate with industry and labour to maintain its aerospace advantage in the face of growing global competition.
According to the document, Canada has now fallen to sixth place in the ranking of the world’s largest aerospace industries, behind the U.S., the U.K., China, France and Germany. In 2004, Canada was ranked in third place – but since then, the global industry has experienced rapid growth and increased competition from countries that were not previously recognized as aerospace powers.
With more nations competing for a slice of the lucrative aerospace pie, Unifor said it’s time for proactive policies to ensure the longevity of Canadian industry.
The union’s policy paper, titled Soaring Higher: A Sector Strategy for the Aerospace Industry, credits past provincial and federal governments that made strategic investments to foster the development of a global, export-oriented industry with a heavy focus on crucial research and development (R&D).
“This is a very interesting industry, to say the least. You need to understand its history,” Unifor’s national president, Jerry Dias, told Skies.
“So much of Canada’s aerospace industry was built on contracts negotiated on military spending. The way it works is $1 spent on military spending equals $1 spent on contracts in Canada,” he said, referring to Canada’s long-time Industrial and Technological Benefit (formerly Industrial and Regional Benefit) policy and Canadian content requirements, whereby successful suppliers must make an investment in Canadian industry equal to the value of their contract award.
“Many shops have benefitted from that policy. When the government purchased the F-18 contract, they negotiated that maintenance would be done in Quebec,” continued Dias. “A publicly-owned Air Canada bought a large fleet of Boeing aircraft, and the government said they wanted Boeing to invest in jobs in Canada [Winnipeg]. Government has always had a major role in the industry in Canada.”
Unifor delivers eight recommendations to safeguard Canada’s aerospace industry – recommendations that the union delegation highlighted during its trip to Ottawa. These include leveraging the power of government, enhancing workforce development and planning, maintaining employment quality, making trade fair, and increasing multi-stakeholder collaboration.
Following the former Conservative government’s attempt to procure the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet – which Dias called a mistake because the plan eschewed regional offsets for a “best value” approach based on competitive bids – Unifor believes the current Liberal government now has a chance to “right the ship.”
“We’ll spend billions on a fighter jet replacement program. It’s an opportunity for a major transformation and investment in our industry,” said Dias.
He also referred to Bombardier’s establishment of a C Series product line in Mobile, Ala., as well as that company’s plans to sell its facility in Downsview, Ont.
“What does that mean in the long term? We need to make sure there are firm commitments and that the [C Series] footprint in Quebec will be maintained and continue to grow. We need to make sure those [Downsview] jobs all remain and we have to find a solution for the Dash 8 program. My preference is for Bombardier to stay right in Downsview.”
The Unifor policy paper reports that the Canadian aerospace industry contributes about $28 billion to the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP), creates or supports close to 210,000 jobs, and grew its exports by more than 50 per cent between 2010 and 2015.
However, the union identifies the proliferation of temporary labour as a threat to the ongoing health of the industry.
“Data from Statistics Canada shows that the earnings premium observed for workers in the aerospace sector is slowly declining and workers report an under-investment on the part of the private sector in the training and up-skilling required to adopt and develop the new technology required to keep the domestic industry competitive,” notes the Soaring Higher policy paper.
Dias said industry must ensure it continues to develop the skills of Canadian workers.
“If you look at the established companies in the aerospace sectors, you would be shocked at how few apprenticeships there really are,” he said. “They are miniscule to say the least.”
He added that a focus on technology and R&D will lead to high quality, good-paying jobs.
“The way to survive in this industry is to develop your technological advantage. But that doesn’t just happen in the boardrooms; it has to happen on the shop floor, too.”
The union recommends strengthening federal and provincial employment standards to address the “creep” of temporary and contract workers into the aerospace industry, and to reduce the incentive to outsource jobs that could be performed by permanent workers.
In addition, it proposes to close the training gap by increasing efforts to train new employees and up-skill existing employees, as well as through the creation of a workforce development strategy that helps new grads transition to the workplace.
In the meantime, Dias said Unifor aims to make sure all levels of government understand the vital importance of Canada’s aerospace industry.
By all accounts, the union representatives said the Ottawa politicians they spoke with demonstrated an “incredible understanding” of the role of the industry in Canada, concluded Dias.