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 conciliation talks set to get underway Tuesday morning.
"We're a little bit surprised that while we are entering this phase that the union would go for pressure tactics including maybe a strike," Bombardier Transportation spokesman Marc Laforge 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, says the Confederation of National Trade Unions manufacturing federation. 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 Bombardier facilities in Ontario, the United States and Mexico.
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.
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."
On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Bombardier's shares were up a penny at $3.74 in afternoon trading Monday.