Alberta Politics
Don’t expect fellows like these to welcome a worker representative to their board if it helps actual workers (Image: William Jennings Bryan U.S. presidential campaign, 1896, Library of Congress).

Erin O’Toole’s promise he’d put workers on corporate boards is meaningless at best, harmful at worst, unlikely to be implemented

Posted on August 24, 2021, 1:10 am
8 mins

Federal Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole has launched a charm offensive to win over unionized workers normally treated as lepers or enemies by modern North American “conservative” parties.

A key policy in the Conservative Party of Canada’s platform, Mr. O’Toole insisted yesterday, will be to require about 100 corporations under federal jurisdiction to have at least one voting board member to represent workers, starting in 2022. 

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole (Photo: Erin O’Toole/Flickr).

Of course, regardless of how those members are chosen, having a single voice on a corporate board would not give working people “a real voice,” or any kind of voice at all. Indeed, it would most likely have the opposite effect in that it would give corporate directors an excuse to ignore what their workers have to say. 

“You have a representative on the board,” I can hear a company spokesthingy smugly telling unhappy employees, “and he agrees with us.” 

If you’re a Canadian working person, when you hear Mr. O’Toole’s promise, you’re supposed to think of Western European countries like Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden. 

To see what’s likely to go awry with Mr. O’Toole’s proposal, though, we need only take a quick look at how legislatively mandated worker board representation actually works in the Western European countries that have adopted it. 

Naturally, there are differences in laws from place to place. There is no single European model for this policy. But the most significant distinction among Western European countries that have adopted this measure is that the size of board representation is consistently dramatically higher than the token gesture Mr. O’Toole is proposing. 

That fully one third of the board members should be representatives of the workers appears to be the norm. And in several countries, that’s a minimum. 

In other words, not one representative, but one third of all board representatives!

Canadian Labour Congress President Beatrice Bruske (Photo: IFPTE.org).

This is the case in Sweden and Norway. In Finland, the required quota is set at a less generous 20 per cent. In Germany and Slovenia, the number is between 33 per cent and 50 per cent; in Denmark, between 33 per cent and 66 per cent. The bigger the company, in Germany, Denmark and Slovenia, the higher the percentage is supposed to be. 

Unlike the others mentioned so far, Austria applies its 33-per-cent rule only to private companies. 

I wonder how Mr. O’Toole’s corporate backers would react to a proposal that a third – or even a fifth, as required by the incremental Finns – of their board members must come from among the working class? 

I think we all understand how likely this is to be accepted by the Canadian corporate elite. They would threaten to decamp for Tennessee or Texas faster than you could say “right to work,” and a hypothetical O’Toole government would fold like a nylon tent. 

Several other European countries, by the way, mandate 33-per-cent board representation only on publicly owned corporations – Czechia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Luxemborg, Poland, and Slovakia. And it’s fair to ask how this well works in practice in Hungary, a virtual dictatorship under Stephen Harper’s favourite European leader, Viktor Orban. 

And whence would Mr. O’Toole’s lonely Canadian worker representatives be found? Surely not from among the elected leaders of the workers’ trade unions, as happens in Germany!

Tried once in the U.S. at Chrysler Corp. in 1980, the presence of a single worker representative on the auto maker’s board “did not translate into meaningful results for workers,” wrote political economist Susan R. Holmberg in the New York Times in 2019. Just the same, Chrysler eliminated the union seat on its board in 1991. 

As practiced in Germany where the concept is widely accepted, Dr. Holmberg observed, it “was never simply about wages and profits. It is about giving workers more power.” How well do you think that will go over with the typical Canadian CEO? 

Mr. O’Toole is not forthcoming with details, but we can take it as given that giving workers real power is not part of the Conservative plan.  

And unions aren’t going to be given a role either – indeed, as noted above, the existence of the powerless and co-opted worker rep would be held up as an excuse to prevent working people from having unions, and to ignore them when they do anyway. 

So, you can count on it there will be no “union bosses,” as Conservatives love to call democratically elected union leaders, on Mr. O’Toole’s oh-so-slightly restructured boards. Likewise, there is no suggestion or explanation of how these worker representatives could be held accountable by the workers they supposedly represent. 

The Canadian Labour Congress called the Conservative proposal “short on details.”

I’ll say! It isn’t worth the shimmering electrons used to transmit it to our screens!

“Mr. O’Toole’s record is one of attacking workers and weakening unions,” said CLC President Beatrice Bruske. “His opportunistic rhetoric and empty promises today do nothing to change that.”

She suggested the Conservative leader won’t provide details “because he knows full well his policy has no teeth and is a non-starter for these companies.”

So if Mr. O’Toole is serious about this, he can demonstrate his good will by actually answering four questions raised by the CLC:

  • Would worker representatives have the same rights and powers as other board directors?
  • Would they have access to the same financial and corporate information?
  • Can he name any CEOs of a federally regulated company he has spoken to who welcome worker scrutiny of topics like executive compensation?
  • What sanctions would he impose on companies that refuse to comply?

In the unlikely event Mr. O’Toole’s promise were kept, this policy would almost certainly be harmful. About the best a working person could hope for is that it would be meaningless. 

So let’s get real, people. Whatever we think a Conservative government in Ottawa would do, it’s not going to be something that would improve the lives of Canadian workers. 

15 Comments to: Erin O’Toole’s promise he’d put workers on corporate boards is meaningless at best, harmful at worst, unlikely to be implemented

  1. Dave

    August 24th, 2021

    Mr O’Toole seems to be the latest in the kinder gentler face of Conservative leaders. Gee, what could possibly go wrong? Well, perhaps the most famous kinder gentler one was US President Bush who seemed like a nice guy, but started two intractable foreign wars, and of course the brutal Great Recession happened in the later part of his Presidency.

    Lest one say, well that is the US, we had Brian Mulroney who also tried to portray a kinder gentler form of Conservatism. He is remembered in part for introducing the GST, a national unity crisis and yes, another brutal recession in the later part of his term. Although, to Mulrooney’s credit, he did seem to have some concern about the environment, perhaps more so than all his Conservative successors including O’Toole.

    Mr O’Toole’s ideas about labour representation are vague at best and leave a number of important questions unanswered. It is true that O’Toole is trying to soften the image of Conservatism. He seems to be changing his image back and forth from true blue Conservative to moderate, depending on what the situation requires, more than say someone like his predecessor Mr. Scheer. However, that fluidity give me even greater concerns or doubts about his sincerity and true beliefs, if any.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    August 24th, 2021

    These pretend conservatives and Reformers don’t have any respect for workers, so we shouldn’t be fooled by what they are telling us. Look at what has happened in Alberta, under Ralph Klein, and how he laid off a large number of nurses and teachers. The UCP have also laid off a large number of people in the education sector, and layoffs to health care workers in Alberta is on their agenda. The UCP wants to foister private health care in Alberta. They want to do exactly what Ralph Klein was intending. Make so many cuts to health care, claim the system is dysfunctional, then privatize it. Had the provincial government continued to get the oil royalty rates and corporate tax levels that Peter Lougheed was getting, and not squandered Alberta’s finances away on the most pricey shenanigans, we wouldn’t be in this horrific mess. The UCP’s corporate tax cuts haven’t done anything for job creation and have just made about $10 billion vanish. When these pretend conservatives and Reformers tell you they are there for the working person, you would have to be a complete fool to believe them. Unfortunately, many people were. With Erin O’Toole, it will be the same situation, as it is with the UCP. To add further grief, they will compromise people’s pensions. Where is the sense in that?

    Reply
  3. Wes

    August 24th, 2021

    “Charm offensive” indeed. Emphasis on the ‘offensive’. ‘Nuff said.

    Reply
  4. tom in ontario

    August 24th, 2021

    My morning paper is doing it again, the blogger refers to the practice many times. Plugs for the O’Toole gang presented as news, opinion in the guise of objectivity. As per past federal elections, Postmedia and the Globe on the eve of the election will extol the virtues of a CPC government and exhort the gullible to elect them. Nothing new under the sun.

    Reply
  5. Political Ranger

    August 24th, 2021

    Yeah, he’s lying! Telling a fib. That’s what conservatives do. They lie. To anyone listening. To themselves.

    They have nothing to offer so they have to make it up.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      August 24th, 2021

      A Conservative who lies? I am shocked – Oh, my.

      Reply
    • Carlos

      August 24th, 2021

      Where is the lying top performer? Hiding from the 4th wave that does not exist according to him. We are free of COVID-19 my friends do not worry and trust him, he knows what he is talking about. Him and his little mascot Shandro.
      What a delight living in Alberta these days. If it was not for the housing prices, I would bet a third of Albertans would have already left this Taliban attack, even without an evacuation.

      Reply
  6. August 24th, 2021

    “It isn’t worth the shimmering electrons used to transmit it to our screens!” Nice!
    DB

    Reply
  7. Just Me

    August 24th, 2021

    As much as O’Toole wants to sell his ambition to be, like Donald Trump, a friend of the worker and the common person, his past belies that intention. If anything, his past reveals that he will work to thwart any effort for greater influence of labour in all aspects of Canadian society and its economy.

    For one thing, he spent many years as a Bay Street hired legal gun, serving as legal counsel for corporations in many liability suits. A shallow dive into these cases reveals O’Toole is familiar with subterfuge at every level corporate governance and pulling the favourable levers in the legal system that protect corporate interests.

    So, O’Toole thinks it would be a great idea for Canadian workers to have substantial influence on corporate boards? Really? 1/5th to 1/3rd of BoDs should be made up of workers? Is that right, O’Toole? He would have you believe that if Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany do it, it must be a good thing. The problem is that these respective countries, some more than others, have regulatory environments that protect workers’ rights. These rights include sound and long standing labour laws and regulations that protect workers’ right to economic justice and safety in the workplace. Workers on BoDs actually have a cultural and legal mandate to have influence over corporate governance.

    O’Toole must have really been paying attention when Kenney put his signature to that commitment to protect public health care in Alberta. And he was also paying attention to Kenney crossing his fingers behind his back when he made that commitment.

    A promise from Jason Kenney isn’t worth soiled toilet paper, and he is the one who installed O’Toole, financed his leadership bid, uses him as his proxy.

    Alberta voters are the biggest idiots alive. They pay every day for Kenney’s lies and subterfuge with broken public resources, an embattled public health care system (in the middle of a pandemic no less) a public education system that has decided to revert by to the 1820s, and an infection of the Covid “Delta” variant that it sweeping the population in oblivion. It’s Kenney and O’Toole’s hope that Canadians are equally stupid and willing to be cull for the Trumpist CON death cult.

    Reply
  8. Ross

    August 24th, 2021

    Until the 80s, corporate directors owed a statutory duty to the “corporation” as well as to shareholders. That was gradually eliminated from various Business Corporations Acts. Simply putting such a duty back in legislation would likely give rise to a right of workers to sue.

    Reply
  9. Andy M.

    August 24th, 2021

    O’Toole is spreading bucket loads of BS, of course, as you point out so well. But, it’s having an impact, according to the polls. There is clear danger that his charm, like a swinging pendant, is mesmerizing many Canadians. Maybe it’s a lack-of-hair thing with the black-T-shirt-wearing O’Toole, but the greedy-for-a-majority Libs look slovenly and sweaty. Watch out for a Conservative minority after a short campaign where voters aren’t really paying attention.

    Reply
  10. Scotty on Denman

    August 24th, 2021

    What Erin O’Toole woulda-shoulda-coulda done differently than JT with the Covid pandemic is a nothing-burger. Addressing LGBTQ and others who’ve never seen themselves voting conservative while swearing to “take back Canada” is a nothing-burger. Pronouncing that the climate-change debate is over is a nothing-burger—albeit one the CPC nursery of ideas burped up. Ruminating about increased private participation in healthcare while assuring that public universality is paramount is a nothing-burger. Promising to put token union members on the boards of select corporations is also a nothing burger.

    For all that, the trimmed-down Mr & Mrs O’Toole appear to be dieting on the holy nothing-burger trinity of Friedman, Hayek and Jenny Craig. How soon will Erin treat us to an avuncular barbecue of piping hot nothing-burgers and steam-whistling hotdogs via zoom from his level-entry patio-penthouse studio above the CPC war room? Not, apparently, before he whets the appetites of the converted who think the CPC might win by this kind of zooming and of those required to fill the popular deficiency whom he thinks can be zoomed. It’s the familiar ‘all-you-can-eat-without-gaining-a-pound’ promise. Also a nothing-burger.

    Perhaps because O’Toole is an Easterner, the first to lead the 18 year-old party, he feels he can get away with broaching the matter of reforming Reformers’ steady, gluttonous slide toward extremism, something the retentive rectitude of SoCon Westerners would never dare. But, while administering much needed medicine to the dubiously conservative CPC would seem salutary to a wide cross-section of Canadians, especially those who’ve never seen themselves as conservative voters, the prudent socialist, liberal, anarchist, green, or alt-rightist would rather wait to see if it works before buying a sick cow. The same could be said of O’Toole’s ‘recovery plan’ which, despite not knowing where Covid is going, would set a course in an uncharted fog where owning a compass, even one that works, is hardly enough. That is another nothing burger.

    O’Toole well knows the CPC’s problem—the same one that plagues all neo-right parties in the Western World: the promise of trickle-down prosperity via tax and social-services cuts has been discredited, and the party’s resort to extremist tropes to distract from wealth inequities and ecological damages that resulted is becoming as bad or worse; the CPC needs to moderate its partisanship and policies in order to become popular enough to win power. Resort to electoral cheating and systems-gaming has already failed to stem the CPC’s creeping moribundity so, logically, something else must be tried, something less fattening than red-meat, the bread and butter of neo-right rhetoric, something more like Diet Coke or low-fat bacon or skim-milk ice cream or salad-dressing lite™.

    The perennial problem with these kinds of quick diets, the bread and butter of fitness, beauty and fashion magazines, is of course that unless strictly adhered to beyond when friends start inquiring if you’re feeling okay, the pounds soon return, often more quickly than they came off, no matter the Jenny-Craig blandishments about well-sated tastelessness. Remember: O’Toole was a part of the very same HarperCon government (for a while, a cabinet minister, even) that, if not destroyer of progressive conservatism, at least devoured its rump head-first, with relish, and put Canada on a belt-tightening diet, replete with temporary foreign workers, while larding-up its favoured corporate cronies.

    A lot of Canadians would prefer a more balanced diet, one that they can sink their teeth into—like a universal public dental plan—providing we take the advise of the great Mohammad Ali: “Brush your teeth!” But, no matter how gap-toothed we might be until then, we can still smile at O’Toole’s attempt to trim his own party’s bloated throes. And a side of shimmering electrons would be just fine!

    Reply
  11. Mike J Danysh

    August 24th, 2021

    “[Business executives] would threaten to decamp for Tennessee or Texas faster than you could say ‘right to work,’ and a hypothetical O’Toole government would fold like a nylon tent.” No doubt you’re right, DJC, on both points.

    Still…I believe Canada would be significantly improved by such CEOs scurrying off to more reactionary locales. Good riddance to the Kevin O’Leary wannabes and sympathizers! If being forced to listen to the unwashed labourers at the boardroom table isn’t enough, perhaps a wealth tax would send them scurrying to the nearest tax haven. “The United States is that way (pointing south.) Let me know when your flight leaves; I want to moon you goodbye.”

    Reply
  12. Caron

    August 24th, 2021

    Like the Stalinists after Khrushchev’s 1963 speech documenting Stalin’s crimes, the Conservatives have run out of credible ideas while technology and the world in general move one. Just as the age of coal and steam was displaced by oil, now it is oil’s turn to displaced by automation and electrons. The Danes have no natural resources beyond fish, wind, and an intelligent population. If the Danes can mandate two-thirds of Board positions in large corporations go to democratically elected workers, and have such a decent and prosperous society, what is wrong with us?

    Reply
  13. Brett

    August 24th, 2021

    Erin O’Toole.

    Friend of the working man.

    What next? Will he be inviting them for drinks at Toronto’s Albany Club?

    Reply

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