Unions reject O'Toole's worker-friendly pitch, campaign to prevent Conservative win

Despite Erin O'Toole's attempts to portray himself as an ally of workers, the Conservative leader appears to remain public enemy No. 1 so far as Canada's labour unions are concerned.

Some of the largest unions are urging their members to vote for anybody but the Conservatives.

Others are actively involved in urging their members to vote strategically in close-fought ridings -- either for the Liberals or NDP depending on the riding -- to prevent the Conservatives from winning.

Still others, such as United Steelworkers Canada, are endorsing the NDP outright.

But Chris Aylward, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said he's unaware of any union that has endorsed the Conservatives.

The party itself did not respond when asked whether it has received any union endorsements.

That does not necessarily mean that O'Toole's blandishments have not attracted any rank and file union members, who have shown in the past that they don't vote as a block or necessarily heed the advice of their union leaders.

In a bid to broaden the Conservative tent, O'Toole signalled a shift in the party's approach to organized labour in a speech last fall, shortly after assuming the leadership. In it, he emphasized the need for unions to protect workers' rights and bemoaned the decline in union membership.

But the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), for one, is doing what it can to deter its members from falling for what it terms O'Toole's "wolf in sheep's clothing" gambit.

"Erin O'Toole comes across as a friend to workers and a friend to unions, but his track record says something completely different," Aylward said in an interview.

"That's why we're saying that Erin O'Toole's Conservatives would be disastrous for Canada's recovery from the pandemic."

Aylward pointed out that O'Toole was a member of cabinet when Stephen Harper's Conservatives cut 26,000 federal public service jobs in four years and engaged in "blatant attacks" on workers' rights, including imposing two controversial laws that were seen as anti-union and which were repealed once the Liberals won power.

PSAC does not tell its 215,000 members how to vote, but it is urging them to "sit back and think about the fact that they really have nothing to gain and everything to lose by voting Conservative," Aylward said.

The union is targeting that message at specific ridings where PSAC thinks a Conservative incumbent can be defeated or a Conservative candidate can be prevented from winning. But it is not explicitly advising strategic voting.

Similarly, Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske said O'Toole's policies "don't really resonate because they don't deliver what we're looking for." The organization has produced a video reminding voters of what it calls O'Toole's "dangerous" policies for workers.

While Bruske herself is campaigning for some NDP candidates, she said the Canadian Labour Congress doesn't endorse any specific party, because some of its member unions are constitutionally required to remain non-partisan. Rather, she said the organization is urging workers to vote for candidates who are "going to be standing up for the average worker, rather than big banks or corporate interests."

It does not recommend strategic voting, Bruske added, arguing that the average voter doesn't have enough information on the dynamic in individual ridings to know which party has the best shot at preventing a Conservative win.

"I think people should vote for the way they want to vote," she said.

Unifor, by contrast, is "100 per cent" urging its members to vote strategically to produce an "anything but Conservative" result, national president Jerry Dias said.

"It's all about strategic voting."

Dias said Unifor has identified several dozen ridings where the Conservatives won by a margin of less than six per cent of the vote in 2019. And it is providing its members with detailed information on the dynamic of the races in those ridings to show them which party is best positioned to defeat them this time.

"We've been doing this for years. I would like to think we're kind of the masters at it by now," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2021.