Will Ontario's Liberals Follow Trump, Or Do What Is Right And Popular?
By Brad James
On its face, it's absurd to think President Trump could spur progressive labour reforms.
Trump’s policy direction favours shrunken employment regulations and unions that are either compliant or impotent. His preferred choice for Labor Secretary, notable for his opposition to minimum wage increases and other basic employment standards, withdrew only after aspects of his personal life and his support for immigration reform became distractions. President Trump favours laws to encourage people to shirk their union dues (disingenuously called ‘right to work’ laws). His tax and health care plans would reward the well off.
But there are policy and political rationales for Ontario – the U.S.’s largest provincial trading partner – to go the other way.
Recommendations from a comprehensive evaluation of Ontario’s Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Act are now landing on the desks of Premier Kathleen Wynne and Labour Minister Kevin Flynn. Union and business insiders eagerly await the public release of the report of the Changing Workplaces Review.
It will arrive amidst concern about the seeming wave of populist economic uncertainty that Mr. Trump exploited to reach the U.S. presidency. Some pundits say that the nastier strains of populism sometimes evident in the U.S. and the U.K. can grow just as easily in Canada.
In the U.S., labour is muddled over President Trump. Old divisions between "craft" and "industrial" unions may be resurfacing, with President Trump getting nods of support from some construction unions. And U.S. unions’ reactions to the President's hostility to immigration and his fixation with wall building have been uneven. Some unions loudly oppose Mr. Trump’s executive orders barring immigrants and refugees from certain predominantly Muslim countries; other unions are halting or quiet.
But in Canada, organized labour counts on stronger support for diversity and, despite challenges (the current Amalgamated Transit Union-Unifor-Canadian Labour Congress disarray, for example), unions here are showing relative unity. In Ontario, unions that had strayed from the province’s central labour body, the Ontario Federation of Labour, are returning to the fold. Unions and community groups are reporting bigger, more engaged turnouts at meetings to advocate for legislative reforms to address the growth of insecure, part-time, low-paid work.
The Ontario NDP supports some long standing goals of labour law reformers. So far, the Tories are biting their tongues. And the Liberal government? A few months ago Labour Minister Kevin Flynn hinted that legislative action on the Changing Workplaces Review's final report could take place before the legislature rises for the summer break. But more recent coverage hints at legislative action later in the year, which could tee up this issue as election fodder.
On CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show just hours after Mr. Trump’s win in November, Premier Kathleen Wynne offered some comments about U.S. politics that reform advocates could usefully repeat and amplify here in Ontario. “People were voting against a system that they perceived wasn't working for them and was not fair ... It puts the notion of building a fair and inclusive society right at the centre of this political discussion.” She went on “We have to create the conditions so that…there is fairness in our society.” Modernizing employment and labour law to fortify employee rights surely fits that bill.
All three major political parties in Ontario seem petrified to tell voters the truth that the programs and services Ontarians want will require many of us to contribute more in taxes. That presents an opportunity for labour and employment law reform advocates to sell their progressive changes as inequality fighting tools that are also low-cost for the provincial treasury.
Reform advocates can point to sentiment even from the big banks that weak employment conditions need to be addressed. A 2015 TD Bank report said “Without the assurance of the income security that comes along with stable employment and hours, and the matching wages and benefits, consumers lack the confidence to spend. Profits remain below where they could be, reducing the confidence of investors to invest.”
A government looking for public support for reform can find it. A recent opinion survey by Vector Research showed that 60% of people in Ontario say ‘precarious work’ - when they hear it defined as jobs that “employees don’t expect to last that are temporary, seasonal, part-time or on short-term contracts” - is bad for the economy; 57% say the government should bring in regulations to reduce it.
Support for reform jumps to 62% among people earning less than $40,000 – a key group for a Liberal party hoping to scoop some votes currently lined up for the NDP.
And a surprising 58% in Ontario favour allowing employees to form a union if a majority sign membership cards.
And while there will be reasonable complaints about words versus actions, in Europe last month Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeated the message that governments and employers are paying too little heed to employees’ concerns.
Will Premier Wynne and her government take up that theme? Will the Liberals decide to meaningfully distinguish Ontario from the U.S.’s Trump-ish policy directions? Perhaps before, but more likely after the provincial legislature’s summer break, we will find out.
Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. Follow him on Twitter @jamesbrad263. Opinions expressed are his own.