I have lost track of how many summits, working groups, task forces and committees are currently underway to reinvent London. There’s the one on growing the economy, and one on improving governance, another on fixing downtown. There's the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee of council in the works. Someone wanted a separate multicultural economic summit. A press conference was held to herald an industry opinion on the value of developing the land around the 401 right now.
But despite all the rhetoric, the unemployment rate doesn’t seem to be going down. In fact, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent releases, things are getting worse in London and environs which includes hard hit St. Thomas and other parts of Elgin and Middlesex County. In the past year, about 8,300 jobs have been lost in the area and more losses are to come, especially when Ford Talbotville shuts down next month.
All this has been rather hard on the current mayor who campaigned on a promise of 10,000 new jobs over four (or maybe five) years while keeping tax increases at zero. So when the most recent figures came out last week, Mayor Fontana decided it was time to take action. He called for another summit.
He invited all the “partners”. This time he included federal Conservatives along with provincial Liberals. After all, the federal election is over, the Conservatives gained seats in London, and Diamond Aircraft managed to find enough money to recall some of its laid off workers without the benefit of the government loan Fontana and his Liberal friends were touting prior to the election. Fortunately, all the provincial partners are Liberals, so no need to invite any other parties with other perspectives to the table. Good thing too, with a provincial election right around the corner.
Then there were the development industry partners: the London Development Institute, the Homebuilders, the London and St. Thomas Real Estate Board and the industry unions represented by the building trades. Also there was Gerry McCartney representing the Chamber of Commerce, Peter White of the London Economic Development Corporation, Marilyn Sinclair of TechAlliance, John Winston of Tourism London, and a couple of people from the nonprofit sector who are trying to figure out how to help people get jobs or do without them.
I didn’t attend. I had planned to do so but when I learned that the whole two hours would be live streamed by the London Free Press, I thought, Great! No problem with a rundown battery in my laptop because there is almost no access to a power source at city hall. And then too, I have the habit of making editorial comments to anyone who will listen at these kinds of events, something that is not always appreciated. Much better to watch on my computer, coffee at my side.
Even on the small screen I discerned that the mood was distinctly upbeat, surprising for such a sombre occasion. Lots of handshakes, a hand on the shoulder, smiles and laughter all around. A half dozen or so councillors were present, not enough to constitute a majority. Had more than 50% attended, it would have become an official council meeting which requires appropriate public notice. Failure to follow the notification protocol would make it an illegal meeting.
If those who did attend had hoped to have an opportunity to weigh in on the issue, they were to be disappointed. The invited guests used all the time available and then some. There was no opportunity for the public or the municipal politicians, other than the mayor, to participate.
The mayor used the occasion to indicate his intention to seek re-election. In five years, London would be Canada’s most prosperous city and he would be right there (in the mayor’s chair). Unless, of course, council decides that the mayor’s chair, and theirs too, should be located in a new city hall. That’s an example of the kind of aside I am likely to make at these events.
The meeting had been billed as an opportunity for brainstorming for the good ideas which would lift London out of its economic doldrums, but the specific suggestions for doing this were few and far between. The politicians of both stripes and colours congratulated themselves and each other for the wonderful job they were doing, what each level of government had done for the city of London, the benefits of stimulus funding, low corporate taxes, the job creation powers of the HST, the cash injection into health care, the gas tax money flowing to the municipality, $7M handed over to a private business, $40M for interchanges at the 401. London is the best city in the world and they don’t care who knows it.
That last sentiment was a common refrain among politicians and business alike; we need to toot our own horns a bit more. Let the world know how great London is. Have a presence along the 401. You can’t see the Forest City for the trees.
But great things are happening in London, according to the mayor. Two call centres are hiring. And just today—and this wasn’t planned, it just happened-- two young fellows from Toronto came to town to announce that they are bringing a successful business model to London. They will need warehouse space and are looking to hire up to 100 people for ExpressPlus, a logistics and custom brokers business (aka courier service). They are looking for drivers at, as they acknowledged in an interview after the meeting, minimum wage.
CAW Local 27 president Tim Carrie is not impressed. He doesn’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but he points out that the 9.1% unemployment rate doesn’t count those not covered by Employment Insurance and it doesn’t acknowledge underemployment. He wants to know what types of jobs are being created. What’s the point of having a job and still having to go to the foodbank? Call centre jobs and courier services don’t pay rent or allow parents to send their kids to university or let families buy a house. His union tried to work with the employers to maintain jobs but the high dollar and transportation costs made it impossible. Free trade has resulted in bargaining our way to the bottom, he claims, and it’s not good for the community.We can't compete with wages in Mexico.
Carrie doesn’t think low corporate taxes will help the situation. “I’ve never had an employer say we can’t stay because of the taxes,” he points out.
Retraining is important but to make it effective requires appropriate income supports. People still have to be able to look after their families. But "call centres and temp agencies are getting government kickbacks that should be going into workers’ pockets," he alleges.
Carrie gets a strong round of applause from the audience. I’ve known him for a long time but his ability to get to "cut through the crap” and tell it like it is, directly and sincerely, never fails to impress. His message resonates even with those who have little use for unions.
There are few others who provide as succint a message. Most are there to praise their industry or company, to show what a tremendous contribution they make, and how they should be supported through less red tape and lower taxes, rates and charges. Some nonprofits who deal with helping the unemployed would like greater clarity on what skills will be needed for the jobs of the future when they don’t know what the jobs will be or who will be providing them.
At the end of two hours, very little of a concrete nature has been offered to address the crisis that precipitated the summit. The mayor suggested that the Chamber of Commerce’s 1200 members should each commit to hiring 1 person this year but, as Gerry McCartney pointed out later, if that were profitable they would have already done so. Several saw direct involvement in international trade as the way to go; the mayor announced a trade delegation to China planned for this fall. And by September, Council’s new Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee will be launched.
Just in time to deal with the fallout from the closure of Ford Talbotville.