In his latest attempt to moderate and soften his party’s positions, Erin O’Toole used his news conference in Ottawa on Monday to highlight the union-friendly policies in his party’s 2021 platform.
“Canada’s recovery plan will give workers a real voice,” he told reporters from the party’s downtown Ottawa studio. “I have the same goal as many union organizations. Jobs for their members and strong economic futures for their families.”
Labour leaders more accustomed to campaigning against Conservative governments aren’t buying it, citing the track record of the former Conservative cabinet O’Toole served in during Stephen Harper’s government.
“Mr. O’Toole not only voted to strip away the rights of workers, when he had the chance to reverse these damaging laws, he refused,” said Bea Bruske, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, in a statement fired out to reporters within minutes of the Conservatives’ daily campaign event.
If elected, Conservatives say, they would require the boards of directors in federally regulated companies to use what they call a “reasonable democratic process” to pick representatives to sit at the table and advocate for workers.
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But the CLC questioned whether these worker representatives would have the same rights and powers as other directors or be just for show. It also suggested this platform plank was released without any proof that the companies involved are ready to comply, and it noted that the platform is silent on what the sanctions would be if they didn’t.
“Erin O’Toole won’t provide details, because he knows full well his policy has no teeth and is a non-starter for these companies,” Bruske said.
‘Grab-bag of gimmicks’: Dias
While O’Toole’s prepared remarks Monday focused on this “seat at the table” offer for workers, the party’s platform also embraced several other longstanding demands of Canada’s labour movement, such as reforming and modernizing the Canada Labour Code to make it easier to organize at employers “with a history of anti-labour activity.”
When asked for examples, the Conservative war room cited Amazon as a company that has engaged in the kind of unfair practices a Conservative government would seek to end.
In a nod to the flexible work arrangements that have kept many sectors of the Canadian economy running during the pandemic, Conservatives say they’d also propose Canada Labour Code changes to help workers who want flexible working hours or the right to work from home.
Whether working-class voters warm to this message remains to be seen, but spokespeople from Canada’s largest unions gave it a frosty reception Monday.
“Erin O’Toole’s proposals to help workers amount to a grab-bag of gimmicks,” said Unifor national president Jerry Dias in a statement to CBC News. “The Conservatives cherry-picked ideas from all over the world, tossed them into a platform, and frankly can’t explain how any of them will work.”
Unifor national president Jerry Dias said O’Toole’s plan doesn’t address the biggest challenges facing Canadian workers today. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)
“On the issues that matter most to union members, including putting an end to scab labour, he’s totally silent,” Dias continued. “Workers don’t need half-baked solutions to workplace problems. We need real action.”
“Generally, we’re fairly at odds with much of the Conservative party policies at the federal and provincial levels,” Meg Gingrich from the United Steelworkers (USW) told CBC News, citing the party’s track record of not only voting in favour of ending strikes but also of negotiating trade agreements that haven’t benefited workers. “My first reaction is one of distrust.”
Trade actions to defend workers
The Conservative platform includes a proposal to give unions standing at the Canada International Trade Tribunal, allowing them to initiate cases against unfair trade practices.
In fact, under the current Liberal government, organized labour has already gained the right to participate in tribunal proceedings. The United Steelworkers, for example, played a role in the 2020 decision to renew steel duties against China, Turkey and South Korea.
Union leaders want to go further, however: not only presenting their arguments and evidence in front of the tribunal when cases relevant to their membership come up, but having the right to initiate their own cases, based on workers’ interests, instead of having to wait for industry groups or companies hurt by foreign competition to take action, and then piling on.
Labour also wants the tribunal’s definitions of “material injury” for the purpose of determining appropriate trade remedies to consider how “unfair” trade impacts manufacturing workers.
U.S. steelworkers have played a strong role in American trade actions for years, and the USW in Canada wants to have the same kind of influence. Getting the right to participate in trade cases, and seeing this language now appear even in a Conservative platform, is a tribute to how hard their union members have pushed to have a voice, the USW’s Meg Gingrich told CBC News.
You’re going to see a lot more ‘Made in Canada.’- Erin O’Toole
“It’s become a mainstream position at this point, where it isn’t tied to any particular party,” she said, touting their success.
However, Gingrich said this part of the platform hadn’t been discussed with her union, or as far as she knew, other major Canadian labour organizations. “It’s somewhat surprising. It’s hard not to be somewhat cynical given their history governing.”
‘Buy Canadian’ rules
The Conservative platform includes something else unions like the USW have asked for: Buy Canadian guarantees in large public infrastructure projects, such as a requirement to use exclusively Canadian steel when building something such as a government-backed pipeline, for example.
If elected, Conservatives say they would require equipment and materials to be sourced from Canadian companies, or at least purchased from countries with whom Canada has trade agreements on national and sub-national government procurement, like Canada’s Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement with the European Union.
“With a Conservative government you’re going to see a lot more ‘Made in Canada,'” O’Toole vowed to reporters. “And you’re going to see an approach where we stand up to countries that abuse international trade rules, like Communist China.”
Such populist pledges aside, Canada would still have to fulfil its obligations as a signatory to the World Trade Organization’s agreement on government procurement (GPA), which requires it to offer other countries a limited amount of access to government contracts.
The recently renegotiated North American trade agreement did not exempt Canada from any of Washington’s Buy American restrictions, beyond what the GPA requires, nor did it require Canada to open its market to American companies.
O’Toole’s embrace of a Buy Canadian philosophy replicates protectionist policies that found a receptive audience with American voters when populist politicians there – including both Republicans and Democrats – embraced “America First” nationalism as a way to appeal to workers fearful of losing jobs overseas.
Conservatives have noticed how popular this idea has been across the ideological spectrum in the U.S., Gingrich said. Populist politicians in both countries are now co-opting language originally developed by the labour movement, she suggested.
“They’re going after union members. That’s exactly what their strategy is,” Gingrich said.
Bid to poach NDP support?
In this federal election, Conservatives are battling New Democrats for the support of working-class voters in a number of potential swing ridings, including parts of Ontario where many potential voters work in manufacturing.
The NDP’s war room was quick to identify an assault on their turf and fire back Monday.
“Erin O’Toole has proven he’s no friend of workers or everyday families,” said Jagmeet Singh in a statement staff circulated about the Conservatives legislative record. “Pretending you care about workers when you need their votes means nothing when you’ve refused to protect their pensions and teamed up with Justin Trudeau to protect the ultra-rich at the expense of everyone else.”
When unions don’t like a party’s platform or track record, their financial resources and organizational network can be used against it.
Earlier this month, Canada’s largest union, Unifor, launched a national advertising campaign warning working class voters not to trust Erin O’Toole to represent their interests.
In the 2019 federal election, Unifor used its resources to campaign against Conservatives in 69 target ridings and took credit for helping defeat Conservatives in just under three-quarters of them.