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   "Right to Work": Risky Political Strategy for the Tories  


By Susanna Kelley

Recently, Ontario PC Labour Critic Monte McNaughton and Warren (Smokey) Thomas, the President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), have ratcheted up their verbal grenade launches at each other over what is expected to be a central Conservative election campaign plank - making Ontario a "right to work" province.

The PC grenades are obviously part of a very deliberate campaign plan to highlight a fight with Mr. Thomas: to wit, Mr. McNaughton has been holding press conferences and releasing public letters to the OPSEU leader, calling for "worker choice," "workplace democracy", and calling him a "union boss" at every opportunity (despite the fact he's elected.)

Mr. McNaughton is carrying out a pre-election strategy to publicize a controversial PC campaign plank ahead of the next election - making Ontario a "right to work" province.

There have been, and will continue to be, claims and counter-claims about whether this policy would bring more jobs to Ontario.

PC leader Tim Hudak says it will; unions say it will mean only lower wages.

All fair play.

Mr. Hudak's job creation plan is actually comprised of a number of different promises, including shrinking the public service by 10,000.

In addition to those promises, Mr. Hudak says "right to work" is meant to allow workers to refuse to pay union dues. By that, however, he means the ability to refuse to pay those dues, but still collect the higher wages and benefits bargained by the union on behalf of workers.

Hudak calls it "worker choice." Unions call it "free riding."

(The question was actually settled in 1946 by Justice Ivan Rand, whose compromise ruling said no worker would be forced to join a union, but if they took the higher wages and benefits bargained by the union, they must pay union dues. It's called the "Rand formula.")

Both sides know rolling back the Rand formula to a pre-1946 era (Mr. Hudak calls it "modernizing our labour laws") would weaken unions by siphoning off money they use to organize and bargain for their workers. That's why it's sparked such a fierce fight already.

Weakened unions = more powerful employers.

The Tories like that equation for a number of reasons. It fits with their stated aim of higher productivity (lower cost per produced unit) and it makes sense that it would: cost per unit produced decreases if wages go down.

But most of all they like it because it could put a big dint in the finances of Working Families, a labour coalition whose members voted to spend money on ads against the Tories in the 2011 election.  

Labour, of course, is opposed to "right to work" legislation. It says unions are only allowed in a workplace after a majority of the workers have voted to be represented by the union. They cite the Charter of Rights' freedom of association guarantee as the basis of what they see as the fundamental right to form a union.  

So, there are those who think "right to work" is a good idea and those who don't. And there will be arguments pro and con.

But how does the "right to work" plank stack up as an election strategy for Mr. Hudak's PC's next time out?   

Let's think that one through.

Firstly, what Mr. Hudak has done, in effect, is declare war on every single labour organization in Ontario. No exceptions.

One of the cardinal rules of political strategy is that you don't put your opponent in such a position that he/she has nothing to lose, because they will fight you with everything they've got, and then some.

But that's what Mr. Hudak has done by going to Defcon 1 even before the election has begun. He has now united all unions in the province against a common foe - himself and his party.

And if the ads by Working Families were enough to make him lose the last election (for it was WF he blamed - a questionable proposition), he hasn't seen anything yet.

Hell hath no fury like every union in the province with their back to the wall and fighting for their very existence.

Secondly, Mr. Hudak does not have his party's full support on "right to work."

His own caucus members are split on the policy and its effect on their own re-election chances. Having MPPs who don't support your policy is not exactly the position you want to be in going into an election.

Some of the party's own supporters have warned people in the Mr. Hudak's office that the strategy is foolhardy.

They have pointed out that by refusing to make any exemptions, for example the police, Mr. Hudak has turned even their traditional allies in the Ontario Provincial Police Association - the union representing OPP officers - against the party.

Police have been amongst the most loyal supporters of the PC party, often working for PC candidates in elections.

The last politician in recent political memory who took on the police in this province was John Sewell as Mayor of Toronto.

He was roundly defeated in the next election. (Rob Ford: take note.)

And those organizations that are unions in all but name, such as the Ontario Medical Association, have got to be watching closely. 

There's also another faction of the party that is also dead opposed.

Real conservatives - the ones who fit classic political science definition of the word - want no truck nor trade with "right to work.

The well-respected Hugh Segal is one of those who are opposed, and it appears he's in good Conservative company.    

The right to unionize, Senator Segal says, became Conservative party policy “less than five years after Confederation … This is part of who we are as Canadians from the very beginning," he is quoted as saying.

And he cites no less a Conservative giant than Sir John A. Macdonald as saying strong labour laws and collective bargaining would be necessary for Canada to prosper.

“My Canada is the kind of country where trade unions and free collective bargaining makes our economy stronger and Canada a better place,” Segal said recently to the Ontario Council of the union Unifor. 

“It is as important a part of a strong and growing economy as capital investment, reasonable profits and fair wages.”  

It is true that red Tories long ago lost control of the Ontario PC party.

But it is also true that former Premier Bill Davis is held in tremendous respect by the party, and he recently warned Mr. Hudak not to move too far right.

So Mr. Hudak will be taking on quite an army in the next election.

Every union in the province; some of his own MPPs; a faction of his own party; the Liberals; the NDP; police officers; union members in the public service.

A consistent trend in the polls over the last months is that this election, expected in spring, is shaping up to be a three-way race that any party can win.

An odd time to put your own MPPs so far out on a limb: just when they're trying to get re-elected.

It remains to be seen whether voters are at the other end of that branch and about to saw it off.











About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : December 16, 2013

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