Doug Ford railed against billionaires and "the elites" in a pitch to Unifor workers this week, earning praise from the union's leadership.
The Ontario premier put in an appearance at the Alstom plant in Thunder Bay on Tuesday — without alerting the press gallery or the public — and made a pitch to its unionized workers, as well as to their brothers and sisters on strike at a De Havilland plant in Toronto.
Ford vowed to have the "backs" of the Alstom workers, who've experienced layoffs as the plant's transit vehicle contracts have dried up in recent years, saying, "We will make sure anything bought in Ontario should be produced in Ontario," according to a local news report.
But his ire was reserved for the owners of De Havilland as he called out the "billionaire owner" — a reference to Thomson heir Sherry Brydson — for planning to move the Dash 8 program and shutter the Downsview plant.
Ford's rhetoric against elites, a staple of the premier in campaign mode, as well as his pledge to fight for the workers, earned him praise from Unifor President Jerry Dias.
Dias told QP Briefing on Wednesday he was "quite pleased" with what Ford had to say.
"I'm sick and tired of listening to politicians that say small government is best," he said. "The bottom line is when working people are in trouble, they need government."
Unifor produced a video of Ford, with his words ringing out over images of striking De Havilland workers, and shared it on Twitter and Facebook.
Watch Premier @fordnation pledge to fight for #Unifor members on strike at @dehavillandAIR & slam the company's billionaire owner Sherry Brydson: "They take our money and then they leave. I think it's disgusting. We have to fight for Unifor brothers and sisters at De Havilland." pic.twitter.com/cGtjdIcOl3
— Unifor (@UniforTheUnion) August 25, 2021
In his speech, Ford accused De Havilland of planning to move the plant to another province — Alberta — just because "the billionaire" lives there, upending the lives of the "great hardworking men and women of De Havilland."
He also accused the company of taking advantage of taxpayer subsidies.
"I'm tired of billionaires and the establishment and the elites, taking our jobs out of Ontario after the Ontario people, taxes have paid hundreds of millions to keep De Havilland going in Ontario," he said.
"They take our money and then they leave. I think it's disgusting. We have to fight for Unifor brothers and sisters at De Havilland."
In a statement, the premier's spokesperson elaborated on his comments.
"Ontario has provided considerable support over the past 30 years to Ontario’s aerospace sector, including over $300 million to ensure continued aerospace manufacturing at Downsview," said Ivana Yelich. "Ontario’s investments supported the development of the Dash 8 series of aircraft, which is now owned by De Havilland, as well as other aircraft programs at Downsview. The province’s investments in the aerospace sector were a key reason the Dash 8-400 aircraft is manufactured in Ontario."
Dias agreed with Ford's take on that.
"Doug knows that the Ontario government has put in hundreds of millions of dollars into this program," he said, adding that the Dash 8 program was originally funded by the federal government, then funded by the Ontario government when it was owned by Bombardier, and argued De Havilland has been the beneficiary of that since acquiring the operation. "Doug is rightfully fighting for jobs to stay in Ontario."
But Dias said giving money De Havilland is not the answer and if that's what the company expects, "They've got something else coming to them."
Instead, he wants to see legal support from both orders of government in the union's battle with the company, adding that the union received a "ridiculous" and "anti-worker" ruling from the court limiting the ability to picket at the Downsview site.
As for Alstom, Dias had a more optimistic view of that plant's future, saying he believes all three levels of government will come together to ensure transit vehicles continue to be made there and he interpreted Ford's comments as a commitment that "he's in."
The union leader also took a pragmatic view on expressing support for Ford, who has been openly hostile to unions the in past.
"Look, I've had my differences with Doug Ford over the last three years, it's well documented," he said. "One thing about me, and one thing I believe, is you have to be balanced. If somebody does something right, then I think you have to compliment them and thank them. If they do something wrong, then you're gonna kick. So that's all fair."
And Dias is not naïve to the political context.
"He has to stand up — regardless of if he's in campaign mode or not — for the workers of De Havilland aircraft," he said. "He understands that this is 700 families — this is a lot. This is hundreds of millions of dollars a year in taxes that go into the Ontario economy. So ultimately, it's frankly his responsibility to stand up and fight for these workers. So that's what he's doing. So I appreciate his comments."
Dias said it's too soon to say what role the union will play in the 2022 Ontario election.
Editor's note: QP Briefing reached out to De Havilland for comment. After deadline, the company issued a statement. It reads, in part: "De Havilland Canada is focussed on creating a sustainable, long-term future for the Dash 8 program and the employment it supports. But fundamental change is required in order to sustain the program. The need to transform the Dash 8 aircraft business dates back several years, prior to the pandemic, and prior to De Havilland Canada’s acquisition of the program."
"Despite the near-term challenges, De Havilland Canada maintains an optimistic outlook on its future and the future of Dash 8 program, and has stated publicly that it intends for the company to be ready to meet new aircraft demand as the industry recovers. However, the company cannot and will not rush to a decision on future production location, nor negotiate a site plan in public."