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Toronto Island Airport: The Jobs Card

As I mentioned a couple days ago, an odd computer problem is preventing me from participating in the comments debate on this website. I'm aware, however, that my recent posting on the Toronto Island Airport expansion has raised some issues that deserve a response. Here's one.

In comments to that article, Mark Dowling asked me why the "jobs card" shouldn't be played in the Toronto Island Airport question. That's a good question and deserves an answer.

I grew up in Windsor in the 1980s, and if there ever was a time and a place where "jobs" were on the mind, it was then and there. Massive unemployment hit in the early part of the decade and the town would have done anything for jobs. If Trudeau suggested the government should buy a year's worth of Windsor-made Chryslers and dump them in the Detroit River, it would have made Windsorites and the (then) UAW members very happy. So, I certainly understand how precious jobs are to people.

There may be a place for considering jobs in government decisions, but there's also a limit, too.

I don't have a problem with the TTC, for example, giving some preference to a Canadian manufacturer when they need new subway cars (Google News backdoor). You need to buy them anyway, so the added benefit of creating jobs and investment in Canada is at least worth considering.

On the other hand, when a public project comes along that (all things being equal) we'd say is a bad idea, the fact that local jobs are produced should not come into the picture. A bad idea is just a bad idea, and the fact that the bad idea might produce some jobs as a side-effect doesn't change that.

No matter how desperate someone is for a job, it is not justifiable to support hiring them to do something which is harmful to the community.

So, either you feel that expansion of the Toronto Island Airport is a a good thing, in which case the local Bombardier order is just a happy bonus. Or, you feel that airport expansion is harmful to the community, in which case job creation is beside the point. This is particularly true as the airport is a public entity, not a private venture.

I'm sympathetic to workers looking to protect their jobs. But there is no reason to feel solidarity with people who put their own employment ahead of the interests of the community. By all means, they are welcome to try to make a living. But we can't support that at any price, just as we cannot and should not support corporate success without regard to the effects. This all became clear to me when I attended a debate on this very issue during the 2003 Mayoral election campaign:

At the debate, I saw something quite different. CAW members from Bombardier were there to fight back against the anti-airport movement. Hundreds of local residents were dismayed at the foolish plans to expand the island airport, but these workers were there to heckle them and ask pro-airport questions of the candidates.

These middle-aged men with snarky attitudes, obviously there to do a job on candidate David Miller, gave me an uneasy feeling. I don't know where the thought came from, but what they reminded me of more than anything else were the company-paid thugs that employers used to use to beat up union organizers or striking workers.

But it wasn't their tactics that annoyed me the most. It was the clear evidence that they, and the management of their union right up to the top, have no regard for the public interest whatsoever. They are as mercenary as any corporation, and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep Bombardier making planes at Downsview. If this means more massive subsidies, noise and pollution, and an ugly downtown, then so be it.

Although, as I said, I still feel that unions play a useful role in representing their employees to employers, in the future I will have a much less sympathetic view to their public statements or their efforts to influence policy outside of labour relations.

I'm sure any CAW member reading this is going to consider me an asshole. In fact, I support Bombardier workers in their endeavours. I just can't go so far as to support expanding the functional capacity of an airport in the wrong location just so that someone will be willing to buy some airplanes.

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