Unite deputy convenor at Bombardier Dougie Jamison lives right beside the factory where he works – a proud bulwark of highly skilled jobs and good wages in an area of Belfast otherwise blighted by deprivation.
“The site where I work there are about 600 people employed and in the immediate wider supply chain you could easily double that,” he explained.
“If those jobs were lost, it would be beyond devastating for our community – it would be catastrophic.”
Dougie and his wife have three daughters, two of them in school. A reflection of what lies beyond an economy without a manufacturing base, his wife works part-time at Tesco and his eldest daughter works at a call centre.
“If I lost my job I have no idea how our family would recover from that,” he explained. “I don’t where we would go or how we’d support ourselves.”
Dougie says he’d love to see Bombardier as a place for his daughters to work.
“But,” he says, pausing. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know” is on the lips of thousands of Bombardier workers, whose jobs are at risk in an escalating transatlantic trade dispute.
In April, US aerospace company Boeing put in a complaint that its Canada-based rival Bombardier had benefited from state-aid from the Canadian government and Invest NI, which allegedly has given the Bombardier an unfair competitive advantage.
Emboldened by president Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric, Boeing took their case to the US Department of Commerce, which sided with Boeing last month and again last week, slapping massive tariffs on imports of Bombardier’s CSeries aircraft, totalling 300 per cent.
These tariffs, if implemented, could threaten the future of Bombardier’s CSeries aircraft and indeed the very future of Bombardier in Northern Ireland.
Bombardier workers resolved that they would not take this threat lying down, and with the support of Unite have launched a campaign to pressure the government to use every option at their disposal to protect communities and the jobs they rely on.
As part of this campaign, a delegation of Unite Bombardier reps flew from Belfast to Parliament today (October 11) to lobby MPs.
Unfurling a banner demanding that prime minister Theresa May ramp up her support, the reps told UNITElive this morning that they weren’t going to back down until they felt the government was fully behind them.
Unite Bombardier rep Ron McDowell (pictured below) explained how May has so far only paid lip service to their cause. She has reportedly spoken with Trump on the phone, but has not taken substantive action beyond this.
“What we don’t have is a strong, unequivocal message from the prime minister – and that’s the main reason we’re here,” he said. “She may be saying things behind closed doors in support of Bombardier but we want a strong message sent to the Trump administration and to the American courts that this is not fair and it’s not going to be tolerated.”
Unite has argued that Boeing’s claim is merely a cynical bid to crush perfectly legitimate competition.
After all, Boeing was not materially harmed by the Delta order – it did not even put in a bid for the contract. Its claims are also hypocritical – Boeing itself has received billions in subsidies from the US government.
Unite has highlighted that the UK government has leverage against Boeing – it has spent more than £4bn in defence contracts with the aerospace company.
“The hostile move by Boeing we think needs to be matched by the British government saying to Boeing – all contracts are under review and could be cancelled unless Boeing does the right thing,” explained Unite Ireland regional secretary Jimmy Kelly (pictured below).
The Unite delegates from Bombardier met with Labour MPs this morning to discuss exactly what’s at stake and what strategies Labour can employ to pressure the UK government into action.
Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey (pictured below) told UNITElive that the wider impact of Boeing’s threat cannot be underestimated.
“We’re looking at 4,000 job losses [in Bombardier] and up to 20,000 in the wider supply chain,” she said. “The impact will not just be on the company – the impact on the Northern Ireland economy will be profound. Bombardier is 40 per cent of Northern Ireland’s manufacturing output. It will devastate communities.
“And it will undermine the government’s intention to have a real and robust industrial strategy going forward,” she added. “That’s because once the capability is lost, and the skills are lost, it’s really hard to pick that back up again.”
‘Polite at best’
Long-Bailey derided the government’s negotiations with Boeing so far as being “polite at best”.
“They need to be a lot stronger now in urging Boeing to drop their case.”
Indeed, as Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner pointed out in the meeting with reps and Labour MPs, Boeing felt so little pressure from the UK government that when business secretary Greg Clark met with a Boeing executive, after only two days of discussions, the executive walked out.
The Unite delegation is set to meet with the business secretary as well as DUP MPs and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn this afternoon.
Unite Bombardier rep John Clarke (pictured below) said that today was only the beginning.
“We’re going to be targeting councils and MPs wherever and whenever we can,” he said. “And we’re going to constantly keep this story in the public eye, at the top of the news agenda. Whatever opportunity we have to further press our case we’ll utilise it.”
Although the road ahead will be a hard one as Bombardier workers campaign to pressure Boeing – one of the largest and most politically influential companies in the world – Dougie said he remains hopeful.
“[After the meeting with Labour MPs] we really felt as if we’re being listened to,” he said. “We just hope our case is getting through to the right people – the people who make the decisions.
“We’re not asking for anything special. We’re just asking to be defended. We’re UK workers and we want to be treated as such.”
- Pics by Stefano Cagnoni