MONTREAL - Bombardier could face strikes in both of its business units as workers at its rail plant in La Pocatiere, Que., have taken a step towards joining Learjet employees in the U.S. on separate picket lines.
The strike in Wichita, Kan., has reached four weeks, the longest in the business aircraft unit's history, surpassing a three-week strike in 2006.
Quebec rail workers decided almost 96 per cent in favour of giving their leaders authority to call a strike in a vote held Saturday, ahead of the two sides meeting with the help of a conciliator Tuesday morning.
"The company and union are so far apart, it's hard to see how we can get together," Mario Levesque, president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions manufacturing federation, said in an interview.
Workers have been without a contract since Sept. 30, 2011, and so far no deal has been reached despite 37 negotiating sessions.
Outsourcing, pension plans and wages are among key issues still outstanding, the union says. The company said it has yet to submit its wage proposal.
The union has long complained that Bombardier isn't honouring its commitment to create hundreds of jobs at the plant northeast of Quebec City, saying it is "outsourcing" work to facilities in Ontario, the United States and Mexico.
Levesque said the company has failed to live up to an agreement signed in February 2010 that the union says guaranteed that Montreal Metro work would be done in La Pocatiere. He said some of the work is going to Bombardier's plant in Mexico while other components are being shipped to outside companies in Quebec and Milwaukee, Wis.
"These are all things that we always used to do and now we send them outside, We have trouble understanding that," he said.
A grievance filed by the union is in arbitration.
"We will do everything we can to regain the jobs, not just for the workers but also for the economy of the region," Levesque added.
Bombardier said it was a "little bit surprised" that the union would use the strike vote as a pressure tactic, just days before conciliation.
Bombardier Transportation spokesman Marc Laforge said work is assigned to plants to meet local employment requirements of tender contracts and the specialties of the plants in its network.
For example, stainless steel work is a specialty at La Pocatiere. Under Bombardier's integrated business model, work is also completed at its facilities in Thunder Bay, Ont., Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Sahagun, Mexico.
"So I don't know what they're talking about when they're talking about outsourcing — but they are doing work for Ontario and they are also doing work for the U.S.A."
La Pocatiere's workforce stands at about 585, including 370 union workers. Additional workers will be hired, pushing the unionized workforce beyond 400 next year as work increases on string of transit contracts in Montreal, Toronto and the United States.
Although former premier Jean Charest claimed that 775 people would be hired to supply the $1.3-billion Montreal Metro contract, Laforge says Bombardier (TSX:BBD.B) has never confirmed that number.
That level of employment suggests a production rate that far exceeds what is needed to deliver 468 subway cars at a rate of one every two days.
In addition to the Metro contract, the La Pocatiere plant is working on the front section for 420 Toronto Rockets, the interiors for 706 Chicago transit cars, 100 multi-level New Jersey transit cars and 54 multi-level cars for Maryland transit.
Laforge said work that may have been done in the past at La Pocatiere doesn't belong to a plant.
"Things have changed a lot since the 1970s and 1980s," he said. "They require jobs in the U.S.A. when the money is coming from the federal government, so this is what we're living in right now. It's all part of what is the business in 2012."
For example, contracts to build the New York and San Francisco subway cars will be done south of the border to meet requirements supporting local jobs in the United States.
In the event of a strike, Laforge said Bombardier Transportation will ensure that its projects suffer as little impact as possible.
Meanwhile, the spokeswoman for Bombardier's business jets said the strike has had no impact on production of Learjets.
"Everything is still on schedule," Danielle Boudreau said from Orlando, Fla., where Bombardier is participating in the National Business Aviation Association convention.
The workers rejected a five-year contract that offered no raises the first year and a one per cent raise for each subsequent year. It would have retained pension plans, but increased the cost of health insurance premiums to the same level in place for more than 4,000 of Bombardier's union and non-union employees in the rest of the United States.
"We're ready to go back to the table and talk to the union and we're still waiting for them to come back. So no progress, we're still at status quo."
Bombardier has faced several strikes over the years, including one last year at its railway manufacturing plant in Thunder Bay, Ont., a short strike at the aircraft completion centre in Montreal, a 2002 strike that grounded production at three Montreal-area plants, and a week-long aerospace strike in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Bombardier's shares closed up a penny to $3.74 in Monday trading.