Ontario’s 43rd General Election has, so far, gone mostly according to script. The governing PCs entered the campaign with a significant advantage in polls and continue to hold strong while the opposition NDP and Liberal campaigns have sought, mostly without success, to position themselves in front of each other as the main challenger to the PCs.

There has, however, been one unexpected development that could have a significant impact on the future of Ontario politics and Ontario’s business landscape — the endorsement of Doug Ford’s PC Party by eight unions. LiUNA, a private sector union representing mainly construction workers, was the first out of the gate with an endorsement for Ford. Since then, seven additional unions have endorsed the Premier and his party including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Ontario Pipe Trades Council (OPTC), both of which have supported the NDP in the past.

While on the face of it this may seem to present a serious problem for the Ontario NDP, H+K’s Patrick Rooney, a former Ontario NDP staff member with a long history in and around Ontario’s labour movement, explores why that might not be the case and what other impacts this could have.

Will Labour split from the NDP?

We need to start by acknowledging that the PCs work to split labour from the NDP over the last four years is clearly having an impact with several of their union endorsements coming from camps that have previously supported the NDP, most notably the IBEW and the OPTC. However, it remains unlikely that the PCs will succeed in splitting public sector unions or some of the private sector unions that have historically been stronger supporters of the NDP from the orange team. While endorsements for Doug Ford from unions is certainly a new phenomenon, and one that will concern the leadership of the Ontario NDP in the long run, the endorsements coming from these particular unions would be considered less worrisome than it could be if they came from elsewhere. Each of the eight unions that has so far endorsed Ford represents workers in the construction trades and the private sector and none of them would be considered amongst the biggest historical supporters of the NDP.

Meanwhile, the Ontario Federation of Labour who represent more than 1 million workers across 54 unions have voted overwhelmingly to endorse the Ontario NDP and leader Andrea Horwath who has also secured endorsements from private sector unions like the United Steel Workers (USW) and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). So, despite the endorsement of the PCs by eight Ontario unions, there is no immediate danger of a broader split that encompasses the major public sector unions or some of their larger private sector brothers and sisters. That doesn’t mean however, that the NDP can sit back on their laurels, clearly, they have work to do to bring back a portion of their traditional voting block into the orange tent.

How will Doug Ford and the PCs maintain union support?

It is also clear that Doug Ford and the PCs will look to continue broadening their own relationships with labour moving forward. At the forefront of those efforts is certain to be Monte McNaughton, the Minister of Labour under Ford, who has been at the helm of the PCs ‘Working for Workers’ agenda including an increase to the minimum wage, an introduction of the ‘right to disconnect’, and efforts to ensure trades unions are overseen by a body that represents them through Skilled Trades Ontario. McNaughton’s playbook is clearly based on the Jason Kenney outreach model that made the federal conservative party so successful with new Canadians during the early years of the Harper government. This strategy recognizes that the workers represented by these unions have a demographic profile — they live in suburban areas, have more than one car, perhaps a child or two, and likely a mortgage, and just want to take a home decent pay check then be left alone — that suggests they ‘should’ have already been PC voters, and now the PCs have made it so through targeted policy announcements and a significant amount of time spent talking directly to these voters.

But what will McNaughton and Ford need to do to continue earning the support of unions, and more importantly their members, or even broadening it to include additional unions moving forward? Could we start to see the Ford government back off on Bill 124 or even begin consideration of more labour friendly policy initiatives that would make it easier to join a union in Ontario? To date, the goodwill of trade union leaders towards Minister McNaughton personally and continued emphasis on infrastructure projects by the Ford government has been enough to bring construction unions and their members in to the blue tent. Should we reach a point where more union-friendly and specific policies are needed to keep these unions on side with the PCs, however, the beginning of a seismic shift in PC policy and Ontario’s business landscape could get underway.

Where are the Liberals in this discussion?

Somewhat lost in the discussion about labour support for the PC’s is the fact that there appears to be almost no support left for the Liberal party in Ontario’s labour movement. For many years under Premier McGuinty the Liberals enjoyed significant financial and people power support from Ontario’s unions, particularly the teachers’ and carpenter’s unions and the Working Families Coalition. But, since the fateful introduction of Bill 115 that stripped teachers of their bargaining rights, support for the Liberals among Ontario’s unions has cratered. While the Working Families Coalition continues to exist and run campaigns against Premier Ford, they no longer have the same impact that they once did. In large part this is because of the work that Ford and his government did to stop ‘issue-based advertising’ which was the bread and butter of the Coalition. Now, without the ability to run coordinated, province wide, advertising campaigns that specifically target the negatives associated with the PCs in favour of anyone but them, the PCs have not had to face the same level of targeted attacks which has no doubt meant for an easier job of campaigning in this election.

In the long run, this is an issue that Steven Del Duca will need to address if he hopes to complete the work of bringing his party back from the wilderness. If Del Duca can recapture some of the significant support his party once enjoyed among Ontario’s labour movement, his job will be much easier for it. The party continues to struggle with revamping their ground game and fundraising efforts in no small part because of the hole that was left when Ontario’s unions stopped supporting them in this work.

What does all this mean for Ontario businesses?

Across North America there has been, over the course of the last year, a significant increase in the efforts of organized labour to penetrate industries where they have long struggled to gain a foothold. The success of unionization drives at Starbucks and Amazon in the United States and with workers for app-based food courier Foodora in Canada suggest that the decades long decline in unionization could be coming to an end. With more and more young workers in the service and gig economies realizing the power that comes with forming a union, Ontario businesses need to aware of how the labour movement and politics in Ontario interact. If a re-elected PC government decides they need to make concessions to private sector unions that make it easier for them to recruit new members or if they decide to acknowledge the positive impact that unionization rates could have on the economy at a macro level, major change for Ontario’s business landscape could be in store.

H+K’s experts on Ontario politics, the PC Party, and the union movement in Ontario continue to monitor these developments and are always available to answer questions or support your business in navigating these challenges.