With election looming, Doug Ford's PCs pitch themselves as a party on the side of workers
'We've always been for the front-line, hard-working union people,' Ford tells news conference
With Ontario's provincial election looming next spring, Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives are presenting themselves as a party that is on the side of workers.
It's a political makeover that will likely to be a tough sell for Ford and his PCs.
Ford came to power in 2018 on a crusade to make Ontario "open for business." One of his government's first bills froze the minimum wage, scrapped a requirement that employers give all staff at least two paid sick days and ended measures that made it easier for some workers to join a union.
But now Ford is clearly making a fresh pitch to win favour with workers.
"We've always been for the front-line hard-working union people," Ford told a news conference in Windsor on Monday. "I will break a brick wall down to support them."
Ford's Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, Monte McNaughton, also aimed for a pro-worker tone in a recent speech to the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group of unions representing plumbers, electricians, bricklayers and other skilled tradespeople.
"We're on your side," McNaughton told the gathering of about 300 union officials in Toronto last Thursday. "There's no bigger champion out there for tradespeople than Premier Ford."
McNaughton went on to voice concern for "workers in Ontario being taken advantage of by some bad actors and bad corporations." He talked of the plight of workers "making well below the minimum wage without pay stubs or transparency on how their work is assigned."
Conservative governments "got it wrong" for decades with their approach to the labour movement, he said in the speech.
"We're taking a different path," McNaughton said. "Not every conservative agrees with me, but we're not going to slow down."
The labour minister is set to reveal legislation in the coming days that he says will better protect all workers.
In an interview, McNaughton said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how vulnerable workers are taken advantage of by big corporations.
"They've had record profits in some cases and record revenue. They need to look after their workers and government has a responsibility to ensure that the scales are balanced," he said.
The idea of Ford's party standing up for workers against big business is being met with skepticism by the PCs' political opponents.
"They can kiss up to the unions if they want, but it's their actions that make a difference," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters on Monday at Queen's Park.
"Actions speak louder than words, and we've seen this government have a very anti-worker agenda all the way along."
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca similarly questioned whether the Conservatives will back up what they say with meaningful action.
"Doug Ford talks a lot about Ontario being open for business. He doesn't ever really mention that Ontario is open towards protecting workers," Del Duca said Monday at Queen's Park.
"Whose side Doug Ford is really on, I think, has been made quite clear over the last three and a half years," Del Duca added.
Mike Schreiner, the Green party leader, pointed to Ford's record as premier.
"This government eliminated the minimum wage increase that was anticipated. This government got rid of permanent paid sick days. The list goes on and on. So I think workers will see through the rhetoric and actually look for concrete action," Schreiner said Monday.
The Ford government argues that it is already taking concrete action to better protect workers, with more to come.
On Monday, McNaughton unveiled new rules for temporary work agencies, including a system to shut down temp firms that violate employment standards. The government is also creating a dedicated team of inspectors to root out illegal treatment of temporary workers and recover unpaid wages.
Asked what else is in the upcoming legislation, McNaughton replied: "We're going to be rolling out measures that improve the standard of living for workers that ensure that they have bigger paycheques and more benefits."
For the PCs, the political calculus driving their message is simple: workers make up a far larger voting bloc than business owners.
Party strategists say Ford polls well with blue-collar workers and people juggling multiple low-paying jobs to make ends meet.
The PCs' success in winning seats in Scarborough, Etobicoke, Mississauga and Brampton in the 2018 election was credited in part to Ford's ability to gain the votes of ordinary workers, including many who are recent immigrants.
Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, which represents more than one million unionized workers, dismisses what the PCs are saying as empty platitudes.
"It's election time," said Coates in an interview, adding that Ford is "rebranding himself as a friend of labour, and he believes that people will forget."
Coates has a lengthy lists of things she wants Ford's government to do to improve workers' rights in Ontario, including employer-paid sick days, anti-scab legislation and classifying gig workers — such as those who drive for apps like Uber — as employees, giving them minimum wage and employment standards protection.
The government appointed in June what it calls the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, with a mandate to provide recommendations on how to "recruit, retain, and reward workers in an economy that is increasingly remote, global and technologically advanced."
Although the advisory group accepted submissions from labour organizations, none of the committee's members actually represents workers themselves.