Alberta Politics
Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole needs to give Alberta Premier Jason Kenney a talking to (Photo: Facebook).

Canada’s progressive politicians need to pay attention to Erin O’Toole’s pivot to unions

Posted on November 18, 2020, 1:03 am
11 mins

If Erin O’Toole was sincere when he surprised everyone last month by bemoaning the decline of unions, you’d think he’d publicly rebuke Premier Jason Kenney for his ongoing campaign to turn Alberta into a right-to-work state.

So far, though, the new Conservative Party of Canada leader has had nothing to say about the United Conservative Party’s labour relations policies or its legislative agenda. Both are far outside the Canadian mainstream and certainly won’t do anything to help restore the balance between working people and powerful corporations that Mr. O’Toole claims to care about.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Photo: Justin Trudeau/Flickr).

Still, judging from media coverage, the Conservative leader’s Oct. 30 virtual speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto signals something of a shift in direction for the party of Stephen Harper, who was no friend of unions, which Mr. O’Toole was chosen to lead on Aug. 24 with Mr. Harper’s apparent stamp of approval.

In his remarks, Mr. O’Toole called industrial unions “an essential part of the balance between what was good for business and what was good for employees,” and mourned their loss of membership in recent decades.

“Today, that balance is dangerously disappearing,” he said. “Too much power is in the hands of corporate and financial elites who have been only too happy to outsource jobs abroad.”

This and similar remarks in a Labour Day social media video featuring Mr. O’Toole were too much for some federal Conservative Party supporters.

“The NDP has a new leader,” grumbled some wit at C2C Journal. “And his name is Erin O’Toole,” was the punchline in the publication loosely affiliated with the Calgary-based right-wing advocacy outfit previously known as the Manning Centre.

C2C pronounced Mr. O’Toole’s olive branch to unions to be a Bad Thing, claiming labour unions sabotage economic progress for disadvantaged workers and other deep thoughts often heard from right-wing Thinktankistan.

But do Mr. O’Toole’s remarks signal a genuine Road-to-Damascus moment for the Conservative Party, or are they a cynical ploy to channel Donald Trump’s 2016 victories in traditional union states like Michigan and Pennsylvania with a tawdry appeal to the darkest fears of union workers?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

If Mr. O’Toole can’t find a way to broaden the Conservative Party’s traditional appeal, it will never be easy for Conservatives to win a federal election – leastways, not without a strongly led NDP to bleed off Liberal votes. Looking at the recent leadership of Jagmeet Singh, it would seem that now is not that moment.

So if we’re looking for hints about what Mr. O’Toole is really up to, perhaps they can be found in what he doesn’t say – about Mr. Kenney’s planned legislative depredations, for just one example.

For another, parse the wording of his Oct. 30 speech. You’ll notice that he made a point of excluding public-sector unions, nowadays the backbone of the Canadian labour movement, from his lamentation about that golden “bygone era” of good union jobs, full-time employment, and a decent pension at the end of it.

“It may surprise you to hear a Conservative bemoan the decline of private sector union membership,” Mr. O’Toole said. We can safely conclude he is not celebrating the relative success of public sector unions.

And while he asked, rhetorically, “do we really want a nation of Uber drivers?” – a good question, to which the answer is no – he quickly moved on to tie his tip o’ the hat to Canada’s de-fanged private-sector unions to the usual Conservative hobbyhorses.

There was hand-wringing over COVID-19 deficits – and certainly no suggestion there needs to be more spending to help Canadians weather the pandemic. He claimed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are moving Canada sharply to the left – flat out nonsense by any measure. Channeling Mr. Kenney, he warned about “vast Green energy experiments,” with no thought to the job-creating potential of renewable energy. And tearing a page directly from the Trump handbook, he set about demonizing China.

So based on this quick read of where Mr. O’Toole is going with his qualified praise for unions, it’s probably fair to say there’s not much there for union members if they’re really paying attention. At best, it’s a plea to go slow with needed environmental reforms, so that the corporations Conservatives traditionally lean toward supporting can wring out a few more profits before the carbon economy goes kaplooie.

As we’ve seen in the United States, complaining that “too much power is in the hands of corporate and financial elites who have been only too happy to outsource jobs abroad” – Mr. O’Toole’s words could have been taken directly from Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign – doesn’t guarantee much action on that file if the speaker gets into power.

Moreover, Mr. O’Toole is the MP for Durham, an Ontario riding that includes part of the City of Oshawa, home to General Motors Corp.’s Canadian operation. So he can hardly publicly attack unions the way Mr. Kenney’s backbenchers do without risking his own success at the polls.

Still, his complaint that corporate decisions to move jobs to China have contributed to the hollowing out of his region’s economy will ring true to many voters – never mind that previous Conservative Canadian governments were at the heart of that process, cheering it on.

He’s also right that many of the traditional trades and construction unions – especially those with members in the fossil fuel sector – are no hotbeds of enthusiasm for environmentalism.

Nor will they be unless someone – like the President-Elect of the United States, for example, if Joe Biden keeps his promises upon taking office – ensures America’s turn to a post-carbon economy comes with a guarantee of good union jobs as well.

Mr. O’Toole certainly didn’t sound like a friend of hard-pressed working people last week when he Zoomed the Surrey, B.C., Board or Trade from Ottawa to assail Ottawa’s former Canada Emergency Response Benefit for being “vastly by tens of billions over-subscribed.”

Government should focus on supporting businesses, not workers hit by the pandemic, he averred.

Nor was he a friend to the faltering union movement back in the day, supporting both the Harper Government’s marquee anti-labour legislation, An Act to amend the Income Tax Act (Requirements for Labour Organizations), intended to use tax law to mire unions in red tape, and its Act to Amend the Canada Labor Code, designed to make it easier to decertify unions in federally regulated industries.

Given all this, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Mr. O’Toole really has the interests of unionized Canadian workers at heart or feels all that much warmth for the union movement.

Regardless of how sincere his nostalgia for a stronger union movement is, going by Mr. Trump’s success peeling off rank-and-file union voters in the U.S. Midwest in 2016, the potential in this approach to conservative parties should be obvious.

Like Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. O’Toole has the advantage of not yet having a record of failure.

Another part of the Trump formula was to encourage working class fear of immigrant workers in economically depressed regions of the country. We don’t know if Mr. O’Toole would do the same, but other Canadian conservatives have certainly been willing to stoop to that.

As prime minister, it’s likely Mr. O’Toole would be about as union friendly as President Trump has been.

But that doesn’t mean progressive politicians can assume union votes are theirs automatically.

Politicians who sincerely support the goals of the labour movement just might want to up their game in response to Mr. O’Toole’s pivot to unions.

They may regret it if they don’t.

10 Comments to: Canada’s progressive politicians need to pay attention to Erin O’Toole’s pivot to unions

  1. Dave

    November 18th, 2020

    Mr. O’Toole’s recently discovered admiration for private sector unions is interesting. It is the sort of talk that could cause people like Harper to start rolling in his grave, right after he expired from the shock of it all.

    How the current Conservative pod can accomodate two peas like Kenney and O’Toole, one who wants to stamp out unions in his province and the other who seemingly now claims almost the opposite, is a mystery. This sort of talk would normally drive Kenney into a fit, so I suspect his having said nothing means Kenney does not take what O’Toole is saying very seriously at all.

    Scheer tried to win best performance for a social conservative trying to portray a moderate. O’Toole seems to be going for the elusive most convincing depiction of a populist by a True Blue Conservative.

    I am hopeful voters will mostly see through this conveniently timed act, but agree we should not assume or take for granted that they will. After all, so many people said no one would take Trump seriously and look what happened in 2016. A lot of people are still frustrated with their economic position in the modern world and looking for a message that resonates with them. All it takes for the Conservatives to win again Federally is to switch a few voters, say 1 in 10 or so.

    Reply
  2. karl roth

    November 18th, 2020

    thanks, makes sum sense now

    with the conservatives – and particularly of the harperite variety – it’s either half truths, distortions or lies
    in this case i pick a half truths, distortion combination in the corner pocket

    Reply
  3. Abs

    November 18th, 2020

    If you want to know what Erin O’Toole is all about, try Eric O’Toole @Eric_OTooleMP on Twitter. He’s the goateed satirical version of same, mechanically asking, “Are you with me?”
    #TakeCanadaBackwards

    Wait, which one is which?

    Reply
  4. Bret Larson

    November 18th, 2020

    If the progressive parties had the couth of Trump on the “union file”, their mandate would be, Make Unions Great Again. Unfortunately their only concern is, Main Unions Paid-off Again.

    Reply
    • Kang

      November 18th, 2020

      Bret: speaking as a guy whose income is dependent on selling beer, scotch, and beef steak, I’ve got to say I love union members who can afford a weekend BBQ. Come to think of it without the unions, there would be no “week-end.” The constipated conservatives and the one-tenth of one percent who pay for their antics are not important customers of mine.

      Reply
  5. Just Me

    November 18th, 2020

    More like the Toole is pulling a Trump-like pivot.

    Given that the Angry Midget/UCP bankrolled the Toole’s leadership campaign, I have no doubt that he is not about to disturb his benefactors by going all leftie on them. Considering his long time support of various anti-labour initiatives, the Toole is a wolf in sheep’s skin.

    The Toole has been making all kinds of promises he can’t keep, like telling Quebec they will have have an energy corridor through their province. It seems provincial politicians nodded when the Toole said this, before laughing all the way back to Quebec City. The Toole needs to work on his lying, until they are at Trumpian levels of crushing magnitude.

    Mulroney, it’s said, had the Luck of Irish on his side. With his talents for hyperbole, embellishment, and charm, he accomplished a tremendous amount over the course of his brief public career. But when the fall did come, he fell further and faster than even he expected. So far, the Toole doesn’t seem to be blessed with such talents. Muldooney could BS in both official languages with skill and confidence. Right now, no one is sure if the Toole can walk and chew gum at the same time. Andrew Scheer sure couldn’t.

    Reply
  6. Scotty on Denman

    November 18th, 2020

    I’m from the region CPC leader Erin O’Toole now represents, until, that is, the vast, late-60s expropriation for an airport never built inaugurated Durham Regional Police from the dregs of the dreadfully brutal York Regional force —who shook down any long-haired bumpkin along rural concession roads while these bulls patrolled the abandoned (expropriated) farms and fields—I and, eventually, about 10% of my little home hamlet (established 1828) emigrated to Port Alberni, BC, and got Mac and Blo jobs at the mills and surrounding logging divisions. O’Toole was just a squirt at the time, and much has changed ( the tens of thousands of expropriated acres are only now encroached by urban sprawl developed on three sides in the meantime) in the province, except for, I would say, politics, especially of the conservative stripe—and I’d include the NDP which, by any many measure, has always been fairly conservative in one of its most industrial constituencies, its ostensible socialism notwithstanding.

    Of course, southwestern Ontario (where most of my family now live) is a CPC enclave in Canada that, along with a few seats further east, has counterbalanced for the first time the once-Western-dominated Reformoid HarperCons which first destroyed federal progressive conservatism, then treacherously sucked up the Tory rump to form the pseudoCon CPC with its contingency of Eastern Tory members and voters who were either duped by the inappropriate commandeering of the conservative brand name or had no where else to go.

    As we’ve seen, the Harper CPC which Canadians, almost begrudgingly, held to two minorities, peaked its popularity at about 42% on the day it won its first and last majority, and it has shrunk ever since, losing first governing incumbency and then the hoped-for comeback under Harper’s hapless replacement, the Westerner Andrew Scheer. The reasons candidates to replace him came from the East are, first, that CPC seats were divided neatly along the PC/Reform fissure in 2019, about half-a-C-note apiece, and an Eastern leader would relieve critical stress on this weak joint; second, Alberta’s UCP leader, former HarperCon cabinet minister Jason Kenney, is so strongly associated with the CPC that many expected him to return to federal politics (had he not been called away to reunite the handful of right-wing provincial parties which, so divided, couldn’t stop a second NDP term themselves) and thus his hateful hyper-partisanship at the provincial level reflected badly on the CPC campaign by reminding Canadian voters of odious Trumpisms he freely adopted (in three campaigns: ‘unite-the-right’, the Alberta election, and the last federal election), especially as it added to the disturbing spectacle of bigotry among candidates to replace Harper (to be fair, much of that came from Eastern CPC contenders). And Scheer didn’t help by being coy about harbouring old, controversial positions associate with the SoCon Western Reformers.

    Nevertheless, O’Toole came West to get Kenny’s approval, undercut Sloan’s campaign by stealing the smarter kind of SoCons thus approved, and edge frontrunner Peter MacKay for the leadership win. More than a hint of disingenuousness revealed in O’Toole’s victory speech, laden with pithy sops to ‘alternative lifestyle’ voters of whom Western SoCons normally disapprove. A compromise from the normally uncompromising shows how close the Frankenstein party Harper built is to the Intensive Care Ward—and O’Toole knows it. However, despite LGBTQ platitudes, his closing sentence indicated a higher priority: to win back power. In fact, he made out like this was the party’s sole purpose—getting power instead of representing constituents and contributing policy proposals to parliament and committees.

    That position alone should unfurl red flags but, naturally, DJC has pointed out another example why O’Toole shouldn’t be trusted: his recent sop to unions is highly suspect, but particularly so with regard his political debt to the K-Boy’s SoCons out West—correctly identified as radical ‘right-to-work’ anti-trade unionists.

    Remind that O’Toole not only has to appease the K(ing-maker)-Boy in return for supporting the new leader’s successful bid: he also has to keep his Eastern caucus and their electoral supporters happy, too. Lucky for him his tricky balancing act is made easier by the fact that CPC support in Ontario has been relegated to the agricultural southwest where Western-like social conservatism reigns over farm fields and country parishes, rather than have to also repay support from fiscal conservatives in Upper Canada’s many big cities where the CPC was shut out in 2019. Still, of the two factions there, Cons of the industrialized cities —the most unlike Western SoCons—alone understand unionism as a bonus that brings stability to their businesses and prosperity to their neighbourhoods. While O’Toole is slopping sops around, perhaps his seemingly conciliatory union talk is aimed at these fiscal Cons, the least like Reformers and the most like PCs. Only thing is, NAFTA gutted much of Ontario’s manufacturing capacity, making public employees the predominant unionized sector, and big city fiscal Cons are now mainly employed in typically non-union financial services. So, while O’Toole prudently courts voters who just happen to reside in urban areas in order to grow the party —or at least stop it from rendering down to a pungent nugget of concentrated bile—qualifying private sector unions only again suggests some disingenuousness, given the dearth of them in big cities and the dominance of public sector unions. Anyways, it sure won’t play in Alberta—and I suspect it is nothing more than a sopping wet sop—maybe even to distract from controversy recently swirling around his predecessor’ s nepotistic hiring practices.

    Let’s try another way: When I worked at Mac&Blo, virtually all BC workers voted NDP, were very pro-union, many taking active roles at IWA Local 1-85; but, most natural resource workers being outdoor recreationalists, and hunting being a big one, the Liberal-implemented gun registry turned most of them off, and stacks of the Link brothers’ Alberta Report and BC Report piled in every shitter stall in every camp in BC influenced many a union brother at one of his only tender moments of the shift until, sadly, most swung heavily to Reform, thence CPC. But the long-gun registry isn’t such a big issue now and such union workers as remain (about 20% of their heyday) might, as a result, consider switching back to the NDP. Do you suppose the sop is intended for them?

    Whatever, it remains that O’Toole, for all his Upper Canadian Toryness and traditional Eastern conservative moderation, is nonetheless a product of the Harper era and leads a party substantially sustained as such. Yet the thing is in such serious decline (like most moribund neo-right parties these days) that keeping two uncomfortable factions together will require constantly reminding that they each need the other—critically, existentially. Born of treachery, raised on deception, and resort to cheating and bigotry in its throes, O’Toole, whatever he is, has an almost impossible task ahead of him—especially if its only goal is to get power for its own sake.

    I’m constantly amazed at the UCP/CPC nexus: it’s like a never ending viewing of Trump: The Channelling. Well, Trump lost, but I’m a wondering if the K-Boy and Mr Potato Head take solace in the fact it was so close. Or: never concede defeat.

    Reply
  7. ronmac

    November 18th, 2020

    The Red Tories are back!

    Reply
  8. Jim

    November 19th, 2020

    Interesting pivot if genuine it would be nice to have a party that did something for working people union or otherwise. The current leader of the NDP federally is such a disappointment, someone remind me again why he wasn’t turfed like Mulcair? Does Notley speak French?

    Reply
  9. jerrymacgp

    November 21st, 2020

    Interesting turn of phrase from Erin the Tool. But the comment, and your post, brings to mind a podcast I’m in the midst of — slowly — listening to. Federal Liberal strategist David Herle’s pod, the Herle Burly, this week features a long-form interview with economist & author Jeff Rubin, formerly with CIBC World Markets — not exactly a hotbed of protectionism — in conjunction with the recent release of Mr Rubin’s latest book, The Expendables: How the Middle Class Got Screwed by Globalization https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Expendables.html?id=SsHMDwAAQBAJ. (I’ve requested it from the public library).

    While I haven’t yet finished listening to the interview, Mr Rubin’s thesis seems suspiciously like 70s-era economic nationalism, à la FIRA etc. That’s fine, I think Canada & Canadians were much better off when we were in charge of our own economic destiny, but it’s certainly a big flip from being part of the globalized investment infrastructure.

    Anyway, he directly links the hollowing out of the middle class to the diminution of influence of unions in both the United States and Canada, and to the way free trade — especially with lower-wage economies like Mexico & the Asia-Pacific — guts what little power today’s unions still have. As he says, what good is going on strike for better wages & working conditions, if instead of engaging in bargaining the employer can just decamp to China?

    As for O’Toole, his singling out of private sector unions is just another divide-&-conquer strategy to hobble organized labour. It’s no different that the UCP’s fellow travellers constantly bleating — like frequent commenter here Mr Bret Larson — that public sector workers need to feel the same pain that’s been felt in the oilpatch — as though laying off hospital laundry workers & nurses will magically create high-paying ‘patch jobs. Don’t believe a word of it.

    Reply

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