Trade union movement skeptical of conservative talk to workers

In her latest attempt to moderate and soften her party’s positions, Erin O’Toole used her press conference in Ottawa on Monday to highlight pro-union policies in her party’s 2021 platform.

“Canada’s stimulus package will give workers a real voice,” he told reporters from the party’s studio in downtown Ottawa. “I have the same objective as many trade union organizations. Jobs for their members and a strong economic future for their families.

Union leaders more accustomed to campaigning against Conservative governments do not believe it, citing the track record of the former Conservative cabinet where O’Toole served during Stephen Harper’s government.

“Mr. O’Toole not only voted to take away workers’ rights, when he had the chance to overturn these damaging laws, he refused,” said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labor Congress, in a statement. statement issued to journalists just minutes from the Conservatives’ daily election campaign.

If elected, say the Conservatives, they would require the boards of federally regulated companies to use what they call a “reasonable democratic process” to choose representatives who sit at the table and defend the workers.

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But the CLC questioned whether these workers’ representatives would have the same rights and powers as other directors or would be lip service. He also suggested that this platform board was released without any evidence that the companies involved are ready to comply, and he noted that the platform does not say anything about sanctions if they do not.

“Erin O’Toole won’t provide details because he knows full well that his politics have no teeth and is a non-starter for these companies,” said Bruske.

“Handbag of gadgets”: Dias

While the remarks prepared by O’Toole on Monday focused on this offer of a “seat at the table” for workers, the party platform also embraced several other long-standing demands of the Canadian labor movement, such as reform and disqualification. modernization of the Canada Labor Code to facilitate organization for employers “with a history of anti-worker activity”.

When asked for examples, the Conservative War Room cited Amazon as a company that has engaged in the kind of unfair practices that a Conservative government would seek to end.

In a nod to the flexible working arrangements that have allowed many sectors of the Canadian economy to function during the pandemic, the Conservatives have said they will also propose changes to the Canada Labor Code to help workers who want to flexible working hours or the right to work from home.

It remains to be seen whether working-class voters will support the message, but spokespersons for Canada’s largest unions gave it a cold reception on Monday.

“Erin O’Toole’s proposals to help workers are a catch-all of gimmicks,” Unifor National President Jerry Dias said in a statement to CBC News. “The Conservatives picked ideas from all over the world, threw them into a platform and frankly cannot explain how any of them will work.”

Unifor National President Jerry Dias said O’Toole’s plan does not address the biggest challenges facing working Canadians today. (Tijana Martin / The Canadian Press)

“On the issues that matter most to union members, including the end of scab work, he is completely silent,” Dias continued. “Workers don’t need half-baked solutions to workplace problems. We need real action. “

“In general, we are quite at odds with most of the Conservative Party’s policies at the federal and provincial levels,” Meg Gingrich of the United Steelworkers (USW) told CBC News, citing the party’s track record not just in voting for the end strikes but also to negotiate trade agreements that did not benefit workers. “My first reaction is one of mistrust.”

Trade actions to defend workers

The Conservative platform includes a proposal to give unions status at the Canadian International Trade Tribunal, allowing them to sue unfair trade practices.

In fact, under the current Liberal government, unions have already won the right to participate in court proceedings. The United Steelworkers, for example, played a role in the 2020 decision to renew steel duties against China, Turkey and South Korea.

The union leaders want to go further, however: not only to present their arguments and their evidence in court when cases concerning their members are raised, but to have the right to conduct their own cases, on the basis of the interests of the workers, instead. having to wait for industrial groups or companies harmed by foreign competition to take action, and then pile up.

Labor also wants the court’s definitions of “material injury” in an effort to determine appropriate trade remedies to examine the impact of “unfair” trade on manufacturing workers.

American steelworkers have played an important role in American trade actions for years, and the USW in Canada wants to have the same kind of influence. Getting the right to participate in business affairs, and seeing that language appear right now in a conservative platform, is a tribute to how forcefully their union members have been pushing for a voice, Union Meg Gingrich said. from Steelworkers to CBC News.

You are going to see a lot more “Made in Canada”. – Erin O’Toole

“It has become a dominant position at this point, where it is not tied to any particular party,” she said, praising their success.

However, Gingrich said that part of the platform had not been discussed with his union, or to his knowledge, other major Canadian labor organizations. “It’s somewhat surprising. It’s hard not to be a little cynical given their history of government.”

Buy Canadian Rules

The Conservative platform includes something else that unions like the USW have called for: buying Canadian guarantees in large public infrastructure projects, like the requirement to use exclusively Canadian steel during the building something like a government backed pipeline, for example.

If elected, the Conservatives say they would demand that equipment and materials come from Canadian companies, or at least that they be purchased from countries with which Canada has trade agreements on government procurement. national and subnational, such as Canada’s Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement with the European Union. .

“With a Conservative government, you’re going to see a lot more ‘Made in Canada’,” O’Toole promised reporters. “And you’re going to see an approach where we oppose countries that abuse international trade rules, like Communist China.”

These populist promises aside, Canada should still fulfill its obligations as a signatory to the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA), which requires it to provide other countries with limited access to goods. public markets.

The recently renegotiated North American trade agreement did not exempt Canada from any of Washington’s Buy American restrictions beyond what the GPA requires, nor did it oblige Canada to open its market to American companies.

O’Toole’s adherence to a Canadian buying philosophy replicates protectionist policies that found a receptive audience with American voters when populist politicians – including Republicans and Democrats – embraced “America First” nationalism as a means of attracting workers who fear losing their jobs abroad.

Conservatives have noticed how popular this idea has been across the ideological spectrum in the United States, Gingrich said. Populist politicians in both countries are now co-opting language originally developed by the labor movement, she suggested.

“They are going after union members. That is exactly what their strategy is,” Gingrich said.

Bidding to poach the support of the NDP?

In this federal election, Conservatives are fighting NDPs for support of working class voters in a number of potential ridings, including parts of Ontario where many potential voters work in manufacturing .

The NPD war room was quick to identify an assault on their territory and retaliate on Monday.

“Erin O’Toole has proven that he is no friend of ordinary workers or families,” Jagmeet Singh said in a staff statement about the Conservatives’ legislative record. “Pretending to care about workers when you need their votes means nothing when you refused to protect their pensions and teamed up with Justin Trudeau to protect the ultra-rich at the expense of everyone else.”

When unions dislike a party’s platform or track record, their financial resources and organizational network can be used against them.

Earlier this month, Canada’s largest union, Unifor, launched a nationwide advertising campaign warning working-class voters not to trust Erin O’Toole to represent their interests.

In the 2019 federal election, Unifor used its resources to campaign against the Tories in 69 target ridings and took credit for helping defeat the Tories in just under three-quarters of them.

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