Sault Ste. Marie by-election candidates slug it out for Steelworkers endorsement

In their first face-to-face debate, Sault Ste. Marie by-election candidates courted the support of the city's steelworkers,

USW Local 2251 endorses New Democrat candidate in Sault by-election

Sault Ste. Marie NDP candidate Joe Krmpotich sits next to the ballot box just before members of Steelworkers Local 2251 vote on which party their union should endorse. (Erik White/CBC)

​Election day isn't until June 1, but ballots were cast in the Sault Ste. Marie by-election on Tuesday.

The members of the United Steelworkers Local 2251, representing some 2,100 employees at Essar Steel Algoma, voted on which candidate their union would endorse.

"Let's be clear: Romano is a Conservative. That's a fact. It says so right on is signs," NDP candidate, Sault city councillor and Steelworker employee Joe Krmpotich told the two dozen people in the crowd at the Marconi Club.

"And what do Conservatives do? They try to destroy unions."

Sault Ste. Marie Progressive Conservative candidate Ross Romano makes his pitch to the Steelworkers Local 2251 during the 2017 byelection. He lost that endorsement vote, but won the race for MPP. Romano then won the union's endorsement during the 2018 general election. (Erik White/CBC)

But PC hopeful Ross Romano, a city councillor who shares Ward 6 with Krmpotich, suggested his colleague was thinking of the long ago Mike Harris era.

"We're not anti-union, Joe. C'mon!" Romano shouted.

"I don't know what party you're referring to. We are a new party with a new direction and a new leader."

Mike Da Prat is the president of United Steelworkers Local 2251, which represents some 2,100 workers at Algoma steel. (Erik White/CBC)

This is a new process for unions, who typically don't hold membership votes to decide endorses.

As well, the United Steelworkers have such a close relationship with the New Democrats, their support tends to go without saying.

But USW Local 2251 president Mike DaPrat says that's doing a disservice to members. 

"You can't put all your eggs in one basket and say, you know what, this is our choice. No matter what, this is our choice. Because if you make yourself irrelevant, you're not serving your members," he says.

In the end, only 16 of the 2,100 Steelworkers voted: 14 for the NDP and one each for the Liberals and PCs.

Rolled steel produced at the Essar mill in Sault Ste. Marie waits to get picked up. (Erik White/CBC)

In elections past this would mean financial support from USW to the NDP, but under new campaign financing rules, unions and corporations are banned from donating to political campaigns. 

The maximum donation from an individual was cut dramatically from $30,000 down to $3,600.

Larry Savage, the director of the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University, says this legal change will require a  "cultural change" for unions, whose donations to provincial political parties have increased every year since 1995. 

"We're going to have to start mobilizing our members and get them to donate directly," says DaPrat. "It's not going to be easy."

All of this is happening with the gloomy backdrop of the possible shutdown of Essar Steel Algoma, which is in creditor protection.

All three main party candidates pledged to fight for the steel industry and support the city's steelworkers, but Liberal candidate and former mayor Debbie Amaroso says that she's the best choice because she'll have a "seat at the table" where decisions are made by the majority Liberal government.

"I'm not there to make friends," she told the crowd at the Steelworkers debate.

"I'm terrified that we will sit on our hands for 13 months because we wanted to send a message."


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