Is the relationship between the Ontario Liberals and the public-sector unions too close?

By Steve Paikin - Published on November 17, 2017
a man at a press conference
Warren “Smokey” Thomas, leader of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, speaks at a press conference on November 16. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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​Over the past five decades, the Ontario Liberal Party has gone through a breathtaking transformation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the party was mostly a rural rump, and, believe it or not, the Progressive Conservatives under John Robarts and Bill Davis were the party of urban Ontario. But starting in the late ’70s with Stuart Smith and then into the ’80s with David Peterson, the Liberals realized they had no hope of winning if they couldn’t be competitive in the province’s urban areas. So they moved to what Peterson often called “the radical centre.”

The move has paid off. Starting with 1985 (Peterson’s first election as leader), the Liberals have won six elections and lost only three — odds any party would take.

Of course, under Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals have moved even further to the left, causing many to say they occupy the same space on the political spectrum as the New Democrats traditionally have.

There’s ample evidence to support that — from a 32 per cent increase in the minimum wage, to a new guaranteed annual income pilot program, to tax increases on high-income earners, to “free” post-secondary education for students from low-income households.

But lately, in another move leftward, the Liberals have been embracing the union movement in such a way as to raise questions about whether the party is truly focused on choosing the best policy options or is simply hoping to ensure union support for its re-election bid next June.

For example, how should cannabis be sold across the province? Wynne’s government opted for an LCBO-style government-run monopoly. But because so much focus was put on how cannabis would be sold, there was much less attention devoted to who would get to sell it. In the end, Wynne opted to give the Ontario Public Service Employees Union the right to represent all marijuana store workers. Coincidentally, that union’s leader, Warren “Smokey” Thomas, who has been a thorn in the government’s side for years and a boisterous critic of the province’s liberalizing beer and wine sales, has been relatively quiet lately, commenting only occasionally on the current Ontario college strike.

And that’s not the only example. The Liberals appear set to create a new agency that would take complete control of running home care in the province. Critics are wondering why a new level of bureaucracy needs to be created to handle this task, given that we already have a province-wide bureaucracy called Local Health Integration Networks that could do the job. And the Community Care Access Centres (CCACs), which used to do the job, were just eliminated.

The Ontario PC Party and many home-care providers are alleging that the government prefers this new agency approach because it would centralize all employees under the government’s auspices, and all those employees would be represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

“This doesn't help or protect anyone except the government and the unions,” says Miranda Ferrier, president and founder of the Ontario Personal Support Workers Association.

Do the Wynne Liberals think their decisions on cannabis and home care are the best public policy moves? Perhaps. But it doesn’t take an overwhelmingly cynical person to conclude that there might also have been political considerations behind these decisions.  

In fact, Ferrier says a provincial Liberal cabinet minister told her that “SEIU has promised us [the Liberals] 100,000 feet on the ground in the next election.” If that’s true, it suggests SEIU plans to import plenty of out-of-province and even out-of-country workers to the provincial Liberal cause next spring.

“They’re fantastic organizers,” says Ferrier. “I’ve gotta give them that.”  

SEIU disputes Ferrier’s claim: “Many of our 60,000 members at SEIU Healthcare are hardworking mothers who work three to four jobs to put food on the table for their families,” says Sharleen Stewart, president of the health-care division. “The idea that they are all going to volunteer for any one political party is silly. While our members work to make ends meet and deliver care for Ontario, our union will continue to advocate for policies that raise them up and protect them.”

The Liberals’ decision on this new home-care agency is interesting, because it flies in the face of advice they’ve been getting from many experts. Former Ontario deputy minister of health Michael Decter called the new agency unnecessary, arguing that allowing more choice within the existing system makes more sense.

“The whole thing stinks,” adds Jeff Yurek, the PC health critic. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

But the Liberal-SEIU relationship has been getting stronger for several years now. The just-departed president of the Ontario Liberals, Michael Spitale, is now director of government relations for SEIU Healthcare. The PCs, at a news conference last week, claimed the union has contributed more than $100,000 to the Liberal Party over the past two years. The Grits, in a previous budget, gave SEIU the responsibility for running a mandatory registry and training program for all Ontario personal service workers.

Even Health Minister Eric Hoskins, speaking at the SEIU annual conference in Detroit last year, told delegates they inspired him, and praised “the partnership between our government and the working people on the front lines.”

For what it’s worth, it’s certainly a defensible position for the Liberals to say they want to amalgamate these public services under the government’s control and with all employees represented by unions. That would be consistent with the reason Wynne says she’s in public life: to raise the living standards of the average working person.  

But it would be better to know that these decisions were being made completely in the public’s interest, rather than for the promise of thousands of boots on the ground for next June’s election. 

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