Popular anger at Bombardier boils over

The cozy relationship between corporate giant Bombarider and Canada's Liberal Party is coming under much-deserved public scrutiny, explains Michele Hehn.

Protesters in Montreal rally against the theft of public money by aerospace corporation BombardierProtesters in Montreal rally against the theft of public money by aerospace corporation Bombardier

THE MAY 11 announcement by Québec aerospace and transportation manufacturer Bombardier that its executive chairman Pierre Beaudoin would be stepping down is the latest in a series of face-saving efforts by Bombardier management to subdue popular anger at its recent theft of public money.

Trouble started for the multinational giant on March 29 when the press announced its executives planned to give themselves raises averaging 50 percent.

If the nearly $30 million (all figures in U.S. dollars) in raises had been the result of a good business year, Bombardier execs might have been able to take the money and run. But Bombardier is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy after pursuing a number of failed business ventures.

But because Bombardier is a corporation and not a citizen, it found a sympathetic ear for its tale of woe among officials in Canada's Liberal Party--which essentially serves as Bombardier's Daddy Warbucks.

For its troubles, Bombardier was rewarded with unconditional payments of nearly $1 billion and $276 million from the Québec and federal governments, respectively. As a gesture of gratitude to Canadian taxpayers, Bombardier then announced plans to lay off 2,000 Canadian workers and another 5,500 abroad, even before awarding its executives extravagant raises.

In Canada, a large country with two official languages, consensus is seldom achieved, but Bombardier's naked looting of public funds has cohered opinion against corporate greed across coast and prairie, arousing hatred among francophone and anglophone alike.

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DENUNCIATIONS OF Bombardier in the mainstream media were so virulent that on March 31, the Liberal Party and Bombardier felt compelled to perform a choreographed concession to public opinion: A public scolding of Bombardier by Québec Finance Minister Carlos Leitão, followed by a statement from Beaudoin that he would renounce his 2016 pay increase.

But these concessions failed to neutralize the wave of public anger, which erupted in a small protest in front of Bombardier's offices on April 2. The same day, the news program TVA Nouvelles announced that a recent poll showed a staggering 93 percent of Québécois disapproved of Bombardier's actions.

A second protest of several hundred people took place a week later in front of the office of Philippe Couillard, who is the Premier of Québec and the leader of the Liberal Party, a day after the opposition parties lost a vote in the National Assembly that would have forced Bombardier management to forego its raises.

On April 10, Bombardier made its second concession to popular anger in Québec and Canada: The deferral by one year of potentially half of the projected 2016 compensation of CEO Alain Bellemare.

In addition to the protests, 34,000 Québécois signed a petition requesting that the Québec government reconsider its $1 billion dollar investment into Bombardier's failing CSeries jet. The petition was presented to the National Assembly by Québec Solidaire deputy Amir Khadir, but Minister of the Economy Dominique Anglade shut down debate, saying curtly, "This is not at all what was planned."

Still the anger was unstoppable. On May 8, two days before Bombardier's annual shareholder meeting, institutional investors including Ontario Teachers, the Caisse de dépôt de la province du Québec and the solidarity fund of the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (Québec Federation of Labour) announced that they would not vote for Bombardier Executive Chairman Pierre Beaudoin at its annual shareholder meeting on May 10.

A third protest was organized by the independence parties Québec Solidaire and the Parti Québécois to take protesters by bus to Bombardier's annual shareholder meeting at its Dorval offices.

Though the dissident investors failed to stop the re-election of Beaudoin--an indication in itself of how out of touch the majority shareholders are with public opinion--the steady drumbeat of criticism from the press was sufficient to wring a final, symbolic concession from Beaudoin: his self-imposed demotion to Chairman from Executive Chairman.

In April, Bombardier's cozy relationship with the Liberals also sparked a trade war between the U.S. and Canada after U.S. aerospace giant Boeing went crying to its own patron, the U.S. Republican Party, that Bombardier's government handouts gave it an "unfair market advantage."

As a result, the U.S. Commerce Department and International Trade Commission have launched an investigation into Bombardier. Canada Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan retaliated May 31 by saying that Boeing was no longer a "trusted partner," while omitting mention of the Liberal government's plan to purchase 18 Super Hornet fighters from Boeing.

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UNSURPRISINGLY, THE Liberal Party is hated almost as much in Québec as Bombardier.

A recent poll shows that 67 percent of Québec's anglophones--the Liberals' traditional base--view the Liberals as corrupt, with the number increasing to 79 percent for francophones.

Indeed, aside from Leitão's token finger-wagging, the Liberals have defended Bombardier to the hilt, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau putting in sycophantic televised defenses of their chums in capital, despite having positioned themselves as the friends of the middle class during their election campaigns.

The Liberals' leading role as enforcer of austerity during the public-sector strikes of 2015 have also gone a long way in perpetuating their image as a bully of the working class. Indeed, the Liberals recently gave themselves a big pat on the back at taxpayer expense in the form of a congratulatory, end-of-congress party, with drinks and canapés that cost twice as much as in 2016.

That a party so generally despised can get elected at all is due to: 1) the lack of an alternative among Québec's several independence parties that can command the votes of those who oppose the Liberals; 2) the "first past the post" or "winner takes all" electoral system; and 3) a culture of "voting the bums out," with little choice except to elect a representative of another neoliberal party.

The pilfering in plain view of public money by Bombardier--with the connivance of the Liberals--comes in the wake of devastating cuts to social services, most recently imposed by the Liberals. These attacks on living standards have disproportionately hit Québec's working class and poor, who are in turn disproportionately immigrant, female and children.

For a full appreciation of the Liberals' hypocrisy, it's worth comparing Leitão's slap on the wrist to Bombardier--after handing it $1 billion--with his statement that "the minimum wage is high enough" in reply to demands for a CA$15 per hour minimum wage that activists mobilized around during the 2016 World Social Forum in Québec.

Independent researcher l'Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économique (Institute for Research and Socio-economic Information) deems CA$15 per hour to be the minimum wage for a "decent wage" for a family of four, while the current minimum wage is only CA$11.20.

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WITH PROVINCIAL elections just around the corner in 2018, it's no surprise that the opposition independence parties, particularly the centrist Parti Québécois and the left-wing Québec Solidaire, have tried to take electoral advantage of the Liberals' low poll numbers by sending their deputies to speak at the recent protests against Bombardier and even mobilizing members for protests.

But with the independence parties split by class, the Liberals may very well come out ahead in the next round of elections.

In this context, the Parti Québécois has urged Québec Solidaire to make an electoral pact to defeat the Liberals. But Québec Solidaire rejected this by a two-thirds majority at its annual congress on May 21, a decision that has been sharply criticized by the mainstream press, as well as by the Parti Québécois. "This is not the decision we hoped for, and we are convinced that it is not the decision that the Québécois population was waiting for," said Véronique Hivon, a member of the National Assembly for the PQ.

Socialists should defend QS on both democratic and strategic grounds for refusing to make a pact with the neoliberal PQ, whose rhetoric has become increasingly anti-immigrant and Islamophobic since its attempt in 2014 to pass a Charter of Values similar to the one that the French government tried to pass a few years earlier.

While encouraging Québec Solidaire's decision to reject an electoral pact with the PQ, socialists should think about how to push QS toward a call for the nationalization of Bombardier, the only remedy that will keep its management from siphoning the taxes of Québec's citizens.