Courting the Unions: All parties see union support as part of their path to victory

On May 28th, Bill C-58, a bill aimed at banning the use of replacement workers, received unanimous support in the House of Commons. This development was mostly expected but gives important insight into the overall approach of Canada’s national political parties to labour relations issues.  

Given that it was a main commitment in the ongoing supply-and-confidence agreement, the Liberals and NDP had a formal reason to support the Bill. The Bloc Quebecois, which has a history of backing union-friendly legislation, also unsurprisingly cast their votes in favour of the Bill. However, the Conservative Party’s decision to back the legislation without a single nay-sayer was the most fascinating development. 

Traditionally, people think small c- conservative governments will be tough on unions. While the move to vote in favour of the ban on replacement workers may have surprised some observers, it is not entirely new for Conservatives given populist union support has often been part of its voter coalition. While the Conservatives may not be attempting to drive their message home with public-sector unions who remain mostly in the Liberal/NDP voter base, the CPC (and its predecessor the Reform Party of Canada) has often found friends in private sector union membership. 

The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), under Pierre Poilievre’s leadership, has been actively courting working-class Canadians, particularly in regions where private sector unions have sway at the ballot box. Poilievre’s populist stance and approach is attracting “orange-blue switchers” in areas like Vancouver Island, the B.C. Interior, and Northern Ontario, according to recent polling.  

This is not new for the party. In 1993, the Reform Party tapped into this voter base in British Columbia to help it win 52 seats and almost form Official Opposition in that parliament. More recently, obtaining the support of private sector unions was key to Doug Ford’s re-election in 2022.   

Aware of the need to avoid appearing “anti-worker,” and continue building broad-based support, Poilievre made a strategic decision to support Bill C-58, despite some discomfort from members of his caucus. Given his lead in the polls that has fluctuated between 10 and 20 per cent over the last year, Poilievre had the ability to spend some of his political capital with his caucus on an issue that some thought the federal Conservatives would oppose. 

However, the CPC’s recent support for this one Bill doesn’t negate how some unions and workers, especially public sector unions, perceive the party. Time will tell if these efforts substantially rebuild relationships or simply serve to drive union leaders to the bargaining table to get new collective bargaining done in advance of the next federal election. 

Since Justin Trudeau’s election in 2015, labour relations and the role of unionized workers have re-entered the national discourse. Traditional “rock-solid” labour support for the NDP began to bifurcate between the NDP and the Liberals, as Trudeau actively courted the support of major union leaders. The evolving landscape of unions including the creation of Unifor in 2013 out of the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), meant that New Democrats could not take the union vote for granted. 

The passage of “anti-scab” (replacement worker) legislation is emblematic of the times as we continue to see invigorated service unions across Canada. CBSA employees, BC port longshoremen, CN and CPKC workers and others have hinted at imminent potential job actions – some of which have now been resolved.  

While the supply and confidence agreement may have given the NDP a path to achieving key legislative wins to try and win over voters, it also has lumped the party in with the Liberals, leaving little room to create nuance on labour related issues. This has created a vacuum that the Conservatives are deftly working to fill. 

Poilievre has filled this void by showing what some see as empathy and understanding for the plight of Canadian workers who face affordability challenges and feel left behind by the “Liberal-NDP coalition.” While institutionalized labour, including the Canadian Labour Congress, may not be buying it, the message is resonating with individual workers and middle-class Canadians – a segment of the voter pool that is proving attainable for the Conservatives, at a significant loss to their Liberal and NDP rivals. 

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