Erin O’Toole’s recent statements recognizing the importance of private sector unions to building “strong communities” along with comments from other Conservatives have raised a few eyebrows.
For some it will be dismissed as opportunistic economic nationalism. After all, we still have the rabid antiunionism of Jason Kenney in Alberta, and only a few years ago, Tim Hudak tried to get elected by floating “right-to-work” laws for Ontario, essentially turning the province into Alabama. Nevertheless, these comments need to be taken seriously and could signal a potential realignment in formal relations between large unions and political parties in Canada.
Conservative politicians know that unionized workers vote for all parties, despite the official positions of union “elites.” Leaders can influence the choice of some union members, but they rarely determine elections.
Unions can, however, redirect money and volunteers to campaigns, or simply withhold support from traditional allies, such as the NDP. It is not as if organized labour’s historic relationship with the federal NDP is sacrosanct.
Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, has developed a close relationship with Justin Trudeau, and Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, has controversially endorsed Bill Morneau for Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Conservative politicians have been supported by police unions and some construction unions for years. The reality is that if some union leaders were to realign formal support with conservative politicians, they would simply be legitimating the politics of many union members.
Organized labour’s realignment with federal Conservatives is possible for two other reasons. First, is persistent populism and its current hold on workers, especially (but not only) white men. Donald Trump may have lost the U.S. presidency but economic nationalism, white supremacy, and suspicion of “elites” remain. Conservatives will continue to foster populist sentiment as labour leaders are just as vulnerable to populist politics as anyone else.
Second, the timing is ideal for O’Toole given COVID-19 has transformed working lives, but unevenly so. Here, O’Toole will exploit fissures between private and public sector workers. Full-time university professors like myself have been teaching via Zoom for months now. It can be an alienating way to teach, but we have not missed a paycheque.
This experience differs from those of exposed health-care workers or food retail workers stocking grocery store shelves who recently lost their extra “pandemic” pay.
Most affected are workers in private sectors, such as hospitality and aviation, who have seen hours reduced or their jobs evaporate completely. There are calls from displaced private sector workers to reopen the economy, despite the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and pleas from health-care workers for restrictions.
Casino workers and restaurant workers have called for reopenings. Aviation workers have organized outside of their unions with a Facebook group with over 12,000 members. The group is calling for sector support and replacement of the 14-day quarantine restrictions on cross-border travel with rapid testing at airports. Enthusiastic Conservative support for sectors, such as hospitality and aviation, will capitalize on what many see as the abandonment by the Liberals.
O’Toole’s new “union recognition” is possibly more strategic than genuine. He not only needs union support to make inroads into strongholds, but if elected, he must divide labour to enable a post-COVID19 austerity agenda. The Conservative agenda will include deficit reduction, low taxation, and private sector solutions over taxing the wealthy and making necessary investments in public infrastructure.
The Conservative playbook is to challenge public sector workers (predominantly women) and demand that they now do “their part” and accept rollbacks as the private sector recovers with the aid of tax cuts and subsidies.
Unions leaders see this strategy clearly, but it does not mean they will all resist it. For some, reducing unionism to its “business” functions and abandoning the hard work of anti-racist and equity education with members necessary to build power is tempting.
Accepting the Conservative’s minor compromise to recognize the right of unions to exist may be all that is required for some union leaders to flirt openly with O’Toole and Ford in the absence of a significantly “better offer” from the other parties.
It may very well be left up to public sector unions and social movements, such as Fight for $15 and immigrant workers rights groups, to push back against this potential realignment. In the short term, however, we may very well see a few more Conservative politicians wearing union jackets.