Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak announced a major policy reversal Friday, saying he would not campaign on making Ontario a so-called right-to-work province.
The issue of making union membership and payment of dues optional caused public rifts with Conservative candidates and internal dissent within Hudak's caucus, as many feared the anti-labour policy could cost the party the next election.
"Only 15 per cent of the private sector is unionized in Ontario [so] this right-to- work issue just doesn't have the scope of power to fix the issues for the 100 per cent of manufacturing jobs threatened in Ontario," Hudak said in a speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
"If we're elected, we're not going to do it. We won't touch the Rand formula."
The Rand formula requires all employees in a unionized workplace to pay dues, even if they don't join the union.
The right-to-work ideas still have merit, but aren't widely supported, admitted Hudak.
'We won't touch the Rand formula' - Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak
"The arguments make sense. Why should anybody be forced to join a union that they don't support?" he asked the business audience.
"My own party raised these measures as an option for Ontario, and when I talk to employers, to workers, some of them tell me that they do want right-to-work laws in Ontario, but not very many."
The right-to-work policy, which U.S. President Barack Obama famously called "the right-to-work for less," was a key part of a Conservative policy discussion paper and was narrowly approved by party delegates at a convention last fall. But veteran Conservative John O'Toole was applauded at the convention when he warned that the party could be "screwed" in an election if they campaigned on the policy.
Travelling across Ontario to promote right-to-work showed the Conservatives that the policy wasn't right for the party at this time, said Hudak.
"Quite frankly, for every one person, worker or business owner I heard say they like this policy, I literally heard from a hundred who said 'focus on getting hydro rates under control, get taxes down, do something about the skilled trades,"' he said.
Policy reversal not affected by byelection results, Hudak says
Hudak insisted his change of heart had nothing to do with losing the Niagara Falls byelection last week to the New Democrats, who were supported by union activists that flooded the riding to rally against the policy.
"We can't run on 15 different white papers. We can't run on 300 different things," he said. "You've got to focus on what's going to have the most impact on jobs and the economy, and it didn't make the cut."
However, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union said Hudak's about face "had quite a bit to do with" the Conservatives loss to the NDP in Niagara Falls.
"That's when they began to realize right-to-work was a non-starter," said OPSEU president Warren (Smoke) Thomas.
The Liberals warned that Hudak's backpedalling could not be trusted, and said he had a "hidden agenda" to bring back
right-to-work if the Conservatives form government.
"I think it's a stunning alleged reversal, but he's still talking about this notion of modernizing labour laws," said Liberal
MPP Steven Del Duca. "The bottom line is he has put so much of his time, energy and resources into right-to-work-for-less policy that it's not believable or credible that he would suddenly change his mind."
OPSEU was glad to see Hudak step back from right-to-work, but doubted the Tories will suddenly become pro-union.
"I thought he might have to back down given early on the divisions within his party, however I don't believe for one minute
that Hudak is going to give up his fight against organized labour," said Thomas. "They will come back at us another way."
Hudak had publicly waffled on the controversial issue for several weeks after firing a Conservative candidate in the Windsor area who publicly criticized right-to-work. The party said the candidate was fired for publicly criticizing PC labour critic Monte McNaughton on Twitter, not for his opposition to the policy.
The policy's been divisive w/in PC party as far back as Sept. when voting at policy convention showed deep split on right-to-work issue #sl— Genevieve Tomney (@genevievetomney) February 21, 2014