Justin Trudeau: Look for the union label

Since the Liberals won the election, Trudeau has taken care to reward Canada's big unions for their support

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a UFCW Canada convention in Montreal, Thursday, August 31, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

It’s a love-in:

Canada’s unions are welcoming the federal government’s plan to close tax loopholes for very high-income earners, saying it’s an important first step toward bringing more fairness to Canada’s tax system.

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“Today’s tax rules make it possible for someone earning $300,000 to save more on their taxes than the average Canadian worker makes in a year, and that is fundamentally unfair,” said CLC President Hassan Yussuff.

So the Canadian Labour Congress has Bill Morneau’s back as he embarks on his widely criticized project to reduce the tax advantages of incorporation. The patrician corporate-head-office finance minister is chuffed at the help from his union brothers and sisters:

Meanwhile, Unifor and the United Auto Workers have been working with Chrystia Freeland on NAFTA. It’s only a modest exaggeration to say Unifor’s Jerry Dias has at times been easy to mistake as a Canadian government spokesman in news interviews on the fringes of the NAFTA renegotiations.

These groups go way back with the Trudeau Liberals. In 2015 a group called Engage Canada, backed in part by Unifor, made big ad buys to soften up Conservative support in what everyone thought were the pre-electoral months. Harper called an early election—or rather, an early start to the campaign for the fixed election date—partly, it’s been conjectured, because he didn’t want those Engage Canada ads to go un-rebutted by his own messaging. It didn’t do him much good in the end.

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Big Labour’s message at the time, infuriating to the NDP, was that members should vote strategically to defeat Harper, rather than support the traditionally union-aligned NDP.

(Full disclosure: I’m a member of Unifor Local 87-M, which has members in most large Toronto-based news organizations. My eternal wish is that my union would stay out of electoral politics.)

Since they won the election, the Trudeau Liberals have taken care to reward Canada’s big unions for their support. Terrance Oakey, whose union-busting organization Merit Canada used to have all kinds of friends in government during the Harper years, has of course noticed, and decried, the new pro-union attitude in Justin Trudeau’s Ottawa. Not that it’s been hard to miss.

It’s pretty easy to see the game here. Partly it’s no game: a lot of Liberals simply continue to see organized labour as a powerful partner in improving life for ordinary Canadians. But partly it’s strategic, too: labour support can translate into votes, and it can help give the general impression that a government Stands Up For The Little Guy.

Of course, the days when a union could reliably deliver its members’ votes, if it ever existed, are long gone. But the CLC claims 3.3 million members; even if only one in 20 listens to the union’s message, that’s a handy bump at election time.

The Harper Conservatives had a fun decade stealing the labour vote right out from under union leaders. These are sweeping generalizations, and there are all kinds of exceptions, but the labour vote is often blue-collar; it often has large families and a high-school or college education; it’s a stakeholder electorate that’s likely to own homes and worry about neighbourhood safety. This was the core of the Harper coalition. Until it wasn’t. (In about 2008, someone in the Harper PMO sent me a story from the Sarnia Observer, about Harper getting a standing ovation at a graduation ceremony for people in the skilled trades. “Ten years ago these people would have been cheering for Chrétien,” the PMO person wrote. One question I ask myself these days during elections is, Who’s going to get Sarnians in the skilled trades on their feet?)

There is, finally, the matter of Donald Trump, who got elected bigly with the votes of many millions of Americans who are, or were once, union members, and who came to believe a hereditary Manhattan plutocrat could give them their hope and dignity back. In Justin Trudeau’s entourage, a lot of people have a lot of time for the notion that this happened because the Democratic Party took its eye off the working-class ball, and they are bound and determined not to make the same mistake. This determination was the pith and substance of the speech Trudeau delivered in the improbably swanky precincts of a black-tie dinner in Hamburg. It’s why so far, in the early going, a lot of Liberals like the emerging battle over tax changes as much as the Conservatives want to bring it to them.

Conservatives lose when they are the party of fat cats. They win when they capture the working-class vote.

Andrew Scheer’s Labour Day message this year did not mention organized labour, a plainly conscious decision that did not leave the Conservative leader disarmed: he saluted instead “the millions of Canadians who work tirelessly to strengthen our economy, while still finding time to give back to their communities when the workday is done. The moms and dads, grandparents, friends and neighbours who manage to coach their children’s sports teams, arrange carpools, and volunteer their time for those in need.”

Trudeau’s Labour Day message could hardly have been more different: a celebration, specifically, of the “discipline and dedication of organized labour” that mentioned “the union-based apprenticeship training program,” “targeted amendments to the Canada Labour Code,” and “the International Labour Organization’s Convention 98.” The PM’s long statement heads into the home stretch with: “Organized labour has a strong partner in the Government of Canada.”

None of this is a guarantee of Liberal success. The Conservatives have shown in the past that they are often able to win union members’ votes despite the best efforts of union leaders. A revitalized NDP, which I suppose is one possible outcome from the party’s current leadership race, could succeed in calling that party’s traditional labour constituency home.

But it’s increasingly clear that Trudeau is the most overtly union-friendly prime minister since his father; that he has top-priority strategic reasons for pursuing the romance; and that the bosses of the big unions, at least, are eager to play ball.

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