Singh makes pitch for union support in Montreal, but faces competition for their votes

Canada's largest union is continuing to support the NDP heading into the election with advertising and boots on the ground. But another large union that supported the party in the past is encouraging members to vote strategically.

CUPE has supported NDP since 1961, but other big unions are pushing strategic voting - and backing Liberals

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is applauded during a speech at the Canadian Union of Public Employees convention in Montreal on Wednesday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Canada's largest union is continuing to support the NDP heading into the federal election with advertising and door-knocking. 

In front of more than 2,200 CUPE members at a national convention in Montreal on Wednesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh asked for members help to spread the word about voting NDP. 

"We are going to ensure that workers are the first priority, that their benefits, their wages, their salaries are protected, that their pensions are protected," Singh told the crowd as they gave him a standing ovation. "Because we stand up for workers. We got you."

But while the NDP has CUPE's support, another large union that has helped the NDP in the past is again encouraging its members to vote strategically. Unifor said it is supporting Liberals in some ridings if they have a better shot than the NDP at winning a seat.

The union's message, as it was in 2015, is to vote in any party but the Conservatives.

Unifor's national president, Jerry Dias, told CBC News his union is not beholden to any one party and while he's happy with the direction the NDP's platform is headed, he has concerns about its opposition to pipelines. 

"I think Jagmeet Singh is an incredible leader," said Dias. "I've got a lot of time for the NDP. But I also have concerns. I have members that work in Fort McMurray in the oilsands. I have members that build pipelines. I'm a pipeline guy. So many of my members will disagree with the position the NDP has taken on oil and energy."

Trudeau government has courted unions

The Trudeau government has leaned harder left and spent the past four years courting unions with legislative changes, including repealing Harper government legislation that would have raised the age for Old Age Security eligibility to 67. Dias said he can pick up the phone at any time and talk to the Liberals about an issue, and he even advised the government on NAFTA renegotiations. 

"It's the first time ... probably in the history of a trade deal where labour was that much involved," he said. He said he doesn't agree with everything the Liberal Party has done. "But I would argue there's nothing a political party would do that's 100 per cent in step with the labour movement."

He added that his union can't tell people how to vote, members make up their own minds. But Unifor, through the third-party group Engage Canada, spent $1.2 million on advertising before the election was called, encouraging members to stop the Conservatives from forming government. 

The attack ads point out Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's shortcomings. The union itself plans to spend another $500,000 on ads leading up to Election Day

While Unifor is supporting incumbent NDP MPs, such as Tracey Ramsey in Essex, Ruth Ellen Brosseau in Berthier—Maskinongé and Brian Masse in Windsor West, in other ridings the ads could help Liberal candidates.

"I will argue in 2019, the lines between the Liberals and the NDP, though they differ in many areas, are still quite close in many areas," Dias said.

Unifor National President Jerry Dias says he would argue the in 2019 the lines between the Liberals and the NDP, while they differ on issues, are still quite close. (The Canadian Press)

The Canadian Labour Congress, an umbrella organization representing dozens of unions and more than 3 million workers across the country, has an issue-based campaign to educate workers. President Hassan Yussuff said while many of his unions leaned toward supporting the NDP in the past, this election that's changed. 

"Some are supporting NDP candidates, some are supporting Liberal candidates, and some are remaining committed to their non-partisan approach by talking about the issues (and) who might best represent their interests," said Yussuff. 

Third-party advertising

United Steelworkers (USW) said it's active in supporting the NDP this federal election, including spending $700,000 on pre-writ advertising promoting the party and its leader. The union plans to spend another $400,000 by Election Day. USW's local members are also volunteering and talking to members at work with hopes of helping the NDP win ridings in areas like Hamilton, London and Windsor. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh makes his way through the crowd at the Canadian Union of Public Employees convention in Montreal Wednesday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Singh was asked after the CUPE event if he's worried that the NDP is not the clear choice of unions any more. He pivoted to contrasting his party with the Liberals, saying the NDP is going to stand up for working-class people.

"Liberals made sure that they put back-to-work legislation in place for postal workers, New Democrats wouldn't do that," Singh said, referring to legislation passed by the Liberal government late last year to end rotating strikes by postal workers.

Patty Hajdu, the labour minister who is seeking re-election, said at the time the work stoppages were causing problems for small businesses, people in rural and remote communities and low-income Canadians relying on cheques to pay bills.

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