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Federal Conservative leader’s speech wants increased union membership

Ron Walter writes about a recent speech from Erin O'Toole
Trading Thoughts by Ron Walter

Supporters of the federal Conservative Party must have been surprised, even upset, at a speech supporting unions given by their leader Erin O’Toole.               

His speech sounded more like a left-wing agitator than a true Conservative business supporter would expect.

Much of his speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto, according to news reports, was spent on defending and promoting unionized labour. Not what one would expect from a Conservative leader, for business operators supporting that party are mostly anti-union.

To them, unions are enemies needing to be kept in their place or eliminated.

‘‘Private sector union membership has collapsed,” said the Conservative leader. Union membership is an “essential balance between what is good for business and what is food for employers.

“Today, that balance is dangerously disappearing.”    

The data bears him out. Statistics Canada surveys show union membership at 30.2 per cent of employees in 2019, only down .4 per cent in five years,

But that’s way down from 38 per cent in 2012 and 43 per cent in 1940. The most heavily unionized sectors are public administration, 72 per cent; education, 72 per cent; and utilities, 67 per cent. Only 16 per cent of private sector employees are union members.

Has O’Toole decided that unions are needed to ensure a fairer division of GDP than happens when employers solely determine wages and salaries?

To a left winger, that is a fundamental principle, as is the notion that unions keep some profits from leaving the country or region and spend them locally.

“Do we want a nation a of Uber drivers?” O'Toole asked while warning that younger generations face an endless cycle of dead end contract jobs without benefits or security — strong talk coming from a Conservative leader.  

It’s ironic too since he was part of the Harper Conservative government that made it more difficult to form unions. 

Across Canada, Conservative governments have erected barriers to union activity and reduced labour benefits.

When he was elected, O’Toole promised to reach out and spread the party tent wider over more voters than the current base.

Some of his Canada First comments have sounded like he has imported a winning idea from south of the 49th Parallel.

The about face on union organization is a significant departure from standard Conservative platform policy.

The departure perhaps recognizes that labour-management jostling over splitting income from business becomes too one-sided when management sets the priorities and labour’s only option in unpleasant circumstances is to find another job.

Whether O’Toole’s outreach to labour succeeds remains to be seen. This speech didn’t receive wide coverage in the media. Unless an idea is well spread voters won’t know about it.

Labour voters will be skeptical about his ideas until they see something concrete.

Will he, for example, get behind an October decision by the Washington State Supreme Court that farm workers are entitled to overtime pay after 40 hours work in one week?

Supporting that would grab labour voters’ attention but erode support from the business base.

Ron Walter can be reached at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.  

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