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Report On Business Bombardier, union launch contract negotiations early amid planned Downsview sale

A Bombardier Q400 NextGen turboprop airliner, built for Toronto's Porter Airlines, sits in the final stages of construction in one of the hangars at the Bombardier plant at Downsview airport, in Toronto in April, 2010.

Norm Betts/Bloomberg

Bombardier Inc. and union leaders representing its aerospace employees in Toronto will start talks on a new work contract earlier than normal as labour seeks to learn more about the company's plans for its Downsview operations in Canada's biggest city.

The Montreal plane maker is scheduled to begin talks with representatives from Unifor on Monday, weeks ahead of their normal start, union president Jerry Dias said. The advancement of the discussions is directly linked to the company's decision to seek buyers for the Downsview site, he said.

"The simple reality is that there are a lot of complex issues on the table so people are going to get to the bargaining table early," Mr. Dias said in an interview on Sunday. "There is an incredible cloud of uncertainty and the first thing we need is answers before we even make any sort of determination of how we're going to move forward."

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Acceleration of the talks underscores how much is at stake in determining the future of Bombardier at Downsview. In addition to some 2,100 unionized Unifor workers whose collective agreement expires in June, the Ontario and Canadian governments have significant skin in the game after ploughing hundreds of millions of dollars into the site over the years.

Bombardier confirmed earlier this month that it was seeking buyers for its Downsview land, a 150-hectare property located north of the city's downtown where it builds Q400 turboprop planes and Global luxury jets. Although some analysts had speculated for months that such a sale was possible, it nevertheless took many Bombardier stakeholders by surprise including Unifor.

"Bombardier always speaks of transparency, yet we were completely left out of the loop on this decision," bargaining committee leaders for Unifor locals 112 and 673 told their members in a letter posted on the 112 website. "Your committee members are as angry and frustrated as you are, but we are focused on achieving a positived outcome."

Driving Bombardier's review of its Downsview property is the fact that the company currently uses only about 10 per cent of the site and bears the entire cost of operating a 7,000-feet runway, said Olivier Marcil, spokesman for the plane maker.

"We need to have the most efficient and cost effective operations to support our growth objectives," Mr. Marcil said. "As we go through the process we will work closely with all stakeholders, including our employees.  We understand that the Downsview property's unique location and proximity to rapid transit will continue to attract a lot of attention including during our upcoming discussion with Unifor".

Mr. Dias stressed that he's had a positive working relationship with Bombardier chief executive Alain Bellemare. But he said the company will not succeed in ramming through any changes unilaterally.

"There's no way that we are just going to allow Bombardier to sell the land and somehow we're going to end up losing our jobs as a result," Mr. Dias said. "We'll have something to say about that at the bargaining table, I can assure you … We're not going to leave the bargaining table until we have firm guarantees on jobs."

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Bombardier took over de Havilland Canada and its Downsview manufacturing site from Boeing Co. in 1992, backed by an Ontario NDP government desperate to keep aerospace manufacturing and the thousands of workers it employed alive in the province. While government bore much of the initial risk of Bombardier's de Havilland adventure, the company subsequently invested significant sums to develop the Q400 and other planes at Downsview.

In a bid to lower manufacturing costs for the turboprops, Unifor agreed in 2016 to let Bombardier transfer the assembly of the plane's wings and cockpits to a supplier outside Toronto that can make them less expensively. The outsourcing never happened.

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