Why the next group of voters Canada’s Conservatives will chase is … unions?

OPINION: Canada’s conservative movement has identified a promising group of voters in coming election contests — labour unions. Don’t laugh
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 03, 2020
Monte McNaughton, the minister of labour, training and skills development, speaks at Queen's Park on June 24. (Richard Lautens/CP)

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Erin O’Toole is still moulding the Conservative Party of Canada into the kind of party he wants it to be, and that means exploring new directions. Last week, he delivered a speech to the Canadian Club in Toronto (O’Toole was visiting virtually; there’s a pandemic on) that laid out one of the more interesting pivots a prominent Tory has made in years: a clear and forceful case for labour unions in Canada.

“In the 1950s, one in three private-sector workers were union members; today, it’s closer to one in 25,” O’Toole said Friday. “This was an essential part of the balance between what was good for business and what was good for employees. Today, that balance is dangerously disappearing. Too much power is in the hands of a few corporate and financial elites who have been only too happy to outsource jobs abroad.”

The catch is that it’s easy for a federal Conservative to say sweet things about the labour movement in Canada, because, for the most part, labour policy doesn’t fall under federal jurisdiction. This costs O’Toole nothing: the real work is done by provincial governments.

So it’s much more interesting that Ontario’s current labour minister, Monte McNaughton, has been making many of the same noises for most of the last year, since he was named to the portfolio in late spring 2019.

“Our party has, quite frankly, made a mistake over the last 20 or 30 years by not reaching out to labour and to workers,” McNaughton says. “To reach out and to help workers, to provide hope and opportunity to them, is vital.”

Before COVID-19 struck, McNaughton had spent months reaching out to labour unions across Ontario; he marched in Toronto’s Labour Day parade in fall 2019. That work continued as the pandemic hit, and McNaughton handled early criticism that construction job sites were not taking public-health measures seriously by sending ministry inspectors and shutting down dozens of sites.

But the government was adamant that the construction sector as a whole could keep working with reasonable regulation, something McNaughton is proud of.

“That kept half a million people working in Ontario, and the track record in construction really is spectacular,” he says. “I think it’s an industry everyone can point to as one that really upped their game.” He and the Ford government have received thanks from both labour and business in the building trades for keeping the sector running despite the pandemic.

Conservatives in both Canada and the United States have been reassessing their approach to the labour movement for some time now. In the U.S., conservative writer Oren Cass began pushing for a renewed labour movement after Donald Trump was elected. (Cass appeared on The Agenda With Steve Paikin last year.) Cass’s formulation of the conservative case for unions is almost verbatim the same one O’Toole made last week: economic growth cannot be measured by GDP alone, civil society needs a measure of equality as well as wealth, and conservatives support the kind of stable households that union jobs can provide.

But nice words — and even co-operation — in the face of an emergency are one thing. The labour movement also advocates for actual policy changes that benefit unions and their members. And some of the Ford government’s earliest labour policies after winning the 2018 election involved reversing several measures the Liberal government had implemented, including a promised $15-an-hour minimum wage. When the Making Ontario Open for Business Act passed in November 2018, it also rolled back several provisions that would have made it at least a little easier for unions to organize in Ontario.

“All of those changes were made before I became minister of labour,” McNaughton says carefully, before adding, “I came to this ministry with the belief that labour, government, and business have to work together. I think my actions demonstrate that — not just the outreach, but real actions.”

McNaughton points to the government’s retraining support for laid-off autoworkers and to supports for hospitality workers left unemployed by the pandemic.

But if Tories are interested in reaching out to labour, nobody should expect them to join the ranks of New Democrats anytime soon.

“The left, truthfully, has chosen social justice and identity politics instead of things that matter to families,” McNaughton says. He points to the fact that opposition parties at Queen’s Park have voted against such things as the expansion of natural-gas infrastructure into rural communities — a measure that employs union labour but arguably works against a long-term climate plan (which was one of the reasons that opposition parties dissented in the first place). If the Conservatives do make inroads with the labour movement, it won’t be just because they’ve started to say nice things about unions; McNaughton believes it will be because progressives have left the door open.

“I also believe that good, meaningful jobs change lives and strengthen families. These are values shared by labour and shared by us as Conservatives,” McNaughton says. “I make no bones about it. I’m from Main Street; I come from a small business background. I believe we need to spread opportunity more widely and fairly — and unions have a role to play.”

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