Ontario Votes 2014·Analysis

Ontario labour groups still deciding how they'll 'Stop Hudak'

Ontario's labour groups seem to agree they don't want a Progressive Conservative government come June 13 - they just don't agree on how to make sure it doesn't happen.

Trend toward strategic voting adds unpredictability to who unions will back

The Ontario Federation of Labour's "Stop Hudak" campaign represents the message of many labour groups. (Ontario Federation of Labour)

Ontario’s various labour groups and unions seem to agree on their goal this provincial election: they don’t want Tim Hudak as premier come June 13.

What’s still uncertain is how they will go about making this happen.

Hudak made the choice clear for organized labour when he promised to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, said University of Ottawa labour law professor Gilles Levasseur.

"(For labour groups) there's a clear platform, where there's one place you don't want to go and the others (are thinking) how they position themselves," he said.

"In previous elections, that was not such a clear mandate… on what would be happening to government jobs and the actual perspective of job creation and the place of unions in the whole system."

Western University political science associate professor Christine de Clercy said labour leaders have a difficult choice when it comes to eventually recommending who their members vote for, rather than against.

“The two leaders on the centre-left are offering similar but slightly different bundles of policy that are attractive to each of these groups in different ways,” she said.

"(Liberal leader) Kathleen Wynne has very clearly and deliberately moved her party much more to the left side of the Liberals’ traditional centre-left territory, and she’s basically competing directly with Andrea Horwath for the hearts and minds of the labour movement."

Liberals moving to left, NDP to centre

What has set up this face-off between the Liberals and NDP are a couple of strategic moves by each party’s leader, de Clercy said.

"Under (Dalton) McGuinty’s leadership, the Liberals were much more centrist. McGuinty famously alienated several large unions, particularly teacher’s unions, with his policies of wage restraint," she said.

"Under his tenure, the division between labour and the Liberals was much clearer.

"Wynne has deliberately and strategically sought to draw more union groups toward her party, she's very carefully re-established relations with the larger teacher unions, for example."

De Clercy also said the Liberal budget, which is now the basis of their platform, makes it difficult for the NDP to differentiate themselves, since it contained a lot of nuggets for unions.

In fact, some labour leaders have been critical of the NDP for promising to vote down the budget, which triggered the election since the PCs had already said they wouldn't support it.

Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, said he thinks the Liberal budget was more progressive than the NDP’s newly-released platform.

"I don't think, on balance, that this was enough to pull the plug on that particular budget," he said in an interview this week.

"We want to stop Hudak and that means in some cases voting for Liberals. That's what unions are saying they're going to do and I'm basically echoing that sentiment," said Ryan, who has run for the NDP both provincially and federally in the past.

Levasseur said Ryan’s willingness to vote Liberal, surprising to some because of how closely tied the NDP and labour are perceived, shows a shift toward strategic voting that’s been happening since Bob Rae’s provincial NDP government was voted out.

"A lot of unions have a traditional NDP base… but what's happening is there's a new political group that's forming itself," he said. "We've seen, for example at the federal level, there's been a shift with the federal unions and NDP," he said.

"The same shift is occurring at the provincial level, where you have this new political alliance built on a more of a strategic perspective than a normal alliance and 'loyalty' approach."

Unions didn't have time to sort out stance

Labour groups have been vocal during the campaign, especially the last week, whether by news release, bus shelter ads or commercials made possible by the end of the Elections Ontario moratorium on political advertising.

The Working Families Coalition, a group "sponsored" by several large unions, has once again released an anti-Hudak television spot after no less than 14 television and online videos during the 2011 campaign.

The Ontario Federation of Labour has launched a "Stop Hudak" campaign and multiple groups representing professors, nurses and other workers blast out news releases on a daily or near-daily basis.

De Clercy said unions weren't able to sort out their exact positions before the campaign, in part because it was a snap election.

"(We can interpret) some of what's been happening over the past couple of weeks as the groups messaging each other, making arguments in the public forum for why one party should be supported… That is a little bit unusual," she said.

Levasseur adds that unions are also turning to social media to spread their message because it's easy, quick and cheap, in an age where it's hard to get massive amounts of people to march or rally.

What's to come?

Labour groups still have nearly three weeks to decide which party they will support in their goal to keep the Progressive Conservatives from winning.

Levasseur said they have to be wary of splitting their support between the Liberals and NDP, which could allow the Progressive Conservatives to gain more seats.

"Maybe they want to position themselves in more of a neutral political way and then at the last moment come up with a position to say 'we support this party' to help them take the lead over the (PCs)," he said.

"We saw this in the last election — Hudak was in the lead, but in the end we got a Liberal minority government."

De Clercy said right now she's seeing many labour groups backing the Liberals because they see them as the best bet against a PC win, but polls are still very close and they will affect that decision.

She also said it's important to remember that labour is made up of many diverse groups and even if leaders back a party, it's up to its members to cast whatever ballot they feel serves their interests as individuals.


Andrew Foote

Digital reporter

Andrew Foote has been covering Ottawa-area news for the CBC since February 2013 after graduating from Carleton University. He can be reached at andrew.foote@cbc.ca.

With files from Steven D'Souza


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