Monte McNaughton has been laying the groundwork for the Ontario PCs' "working for workers" brand for years.
The Progressive Conservative labour minister's calendar, obtained by QP Briefing through a freedom-of-information request, shows he has held dozens of meetings with private-sector unions since he took over the post in 2019. The PCs have been endorsed this election by many of those same unions.
McNaughton says he wants to hack further into NDP territory in his quest to build a "blue-collar Conservative coalition," bolstered by $158 billion in planned infrastructure spending over the next decade.
The NDP, saying workers know who really has their backs, hasn't put up much of a fight.
Years in the making
In his first 100 days as labour minister, McNaughton said he met with more than 100 labour leaders. That appears to be true — his calendar shows meetings with carpenters, boilermakers, electrical workers, ironworkers, sprinkler fitters, heavy equipment operators, and others. He's met with dozens more since then.
In an interview with QP Briefing, McNaughton said he made a "conscious decision" to go hard after trade unions. He isn't the only conservative making a play for the union vote, but it's clearly a point of pride for him and the Tories. The party has been media-averse during the campaign. But, the PCs jumped at the chance to set up a call with McNaughton.
The Tories are definitely not every worker's first choice. Many weren't pleased when Doug Ford's government axed paid sick days and cancelled the minimum wage increase.
And a series of public-sector cutbacks — including Bill 124, which nurses say is partly driving Ontario's health worker shortage — has obliterated any chance of the Tories drawing support from nurses, teachers and most other public service workers.
McNaughton seemed content to leave that relationship be, saying "both sides" will have to try to mend it.
But with private-sector unions, McNaughton's efforts are starting to pay off. The PCs have been endorsed by:
- Laborers' International Union (LiUNA)
- Ontario Pipe Trades Council (OPTC)
- International Brotherhood of Boilermakers
- International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Council of Ontario (IBEW CCO)
- International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Local 285
- International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT)
- United Association (UA) Local 787 – HVAC&R Workers of Ontario
The boilermakers, electrical workers and painters are especially notable since they were part of the Working Families coalition — a now-defunct union group that fought fiercely against the PCs in the 2000s.
Not all private-sector unions are into the PCs. There's even discord within one that endorsed the party. IBEW International VP Tom Reid noted that it was only the Construction Council of Ontario part of his union that greenlit the PCs. The CCO represents 11 construction locals.
Reid said the CCO doesn't speak for the IBEW's members in health care, government, telecommunications and other sectors.
"The attacks on teachers and education staff, families with autistic children, minimum wage earners, our health-care workers and of course the treatment of Ontario’s seniors before and during the pandemic by the Ontario PCs are not something that our members, or those in the larger labour movement consider to be labour friendly, or worthy of a union endorsement at election time," he said in a statement.
The PCs have also tried to go after gig workers, introducing two pieces of legislation aimed at boosting their rights and pay. But the group remains largely unmoved, and many say the legislation actually hurts gig workers in their fight to be recognized as normal employees. While McNaughton wouldn't commit to doing that, he called the bills a "starting point" and said gig workers are "clearly better off" than they were before.
NDP brushes off concerns
The NDP still has strong union support — mostly from the public sector, but also that of the United Steelworkers, the largest private-sector union in North America, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has hundreds of thousands of Canadian members.
An op-ed from NDP-supporting unions says it's "absurd" to think organized labour is going blue.
The NDP has been endorsed by:
- Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL)
- Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)
- United Steelworkers (USW)
- United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)
- Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario
- Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW)
- Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU)
Teacher unions have also endorsed both Liberal and NDP candidates.
The NDP doesn't seem particularly worried, at least outwardly, about the Tories coming for workers. Most of the PC-endorsing unions probably wouldn't support the NDP anyway, one spokesperson said.
QPB asked if the party was working on a strategy to win them over — perhaps involving the Green New Democratic Deal, which contains a jobs guarantee for tradespeople — but didn't get a response.
Horwath said she's "really proud" of the Deal when QPB prodded her this week. But she hasn't highlighted it much during the campaign.
She said the NDP still has a firm grasp on working people.
"One of the things I think working people know very well is that New Democrats are always on their side," she said, adding that she spoke to the then-striking carpenters' union just over a week ago.
"This is definitely a relationship that we've had for many, many, many years. And we're gonna continue to have that relationship."