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

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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole in Parliament. Image: Erin O'Toole/Facebook

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 O'Toole claims to care about.

Still, judging from media coverage, the Conservative leader's October 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 O'Toole was chosen to lead on August 24 with Harper's apparent stamp of approval.

In his remarks, 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 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 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 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?

If 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 O'Toole is really up to, perhaps they can be found in what he doesn't say -- about Kenney's planned legislative depredations, for just one example.

For another, parse the wording of his October 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," 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 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 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" -- O'Toole's words could have been taken directly from Trump's 2016 campaign -- doesn't guarantee much action on that file if the speaker gets into power.

Moreover, 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 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.

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 Labour Code, designed to make it easier to decertify unions in federally regulated industries.

Given all this, there are plenty of reasons to doubt 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 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 Trump in 2016, 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 O'Toole would do the same, but other Canadian conservatives have certainly been willing to stoop to that.

As prime minister, it's likely 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 O'Toole's pivot to unions.

They may regret it if they don't.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Erin O'Toole/Facebook

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