Economic analysis

Unions shift alliances in Ontario provincial election

Infighting and shifting loyalties are plaguing the parties’ machines

Colin Perkel/CP

Colin Perkel/CP

Nobody does existential angst quite like New Democrats, so when nearly three dozen party veterans co-signed a scorching letter last week to Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, it was tempting to wave away the attack as one more of the party’s outbreaks of self-doubt. “It seems in your rush to the centre, you are abandoning those values and constituencies that the party has always championed,” warned the letter, which was leaked to media in the thick of Ontario’s hotly contested provincial election campaign. “The NDP has always stood for more democracy and social justice. We urge you to change your course.”

The party elders were upset with Horwath over a platform they claim sounds more conservative than social democratic (“It is not clear whether you are giving up on progressive voters or you are taking them for granted”). But embedded in their polemic was a threat: If Horwath didn’t change her ways—de-emphasizing NDP anathemas like balanced budgets and fiscal restraint—she would soon be a general without an army. At least nine of the disgruntled signatories, after all, were labour activists whose unions have in the past canvassed, distributed leaflets and erected signs on behalf of NDP candidates. This time, said Judy Rebick, the left-wing stalwart and one of the letter’s authors, “the unions aren’t putting the energy into supporting the NDP that they normally would.”

Snarky ads and pithy one-liners can set the tone of a campaign. But when an election comes down to a few key ridings, there’s nothing a party needs—or fears losing—more than boots on the ground. This truism holds even as campaigns become more data-driven, and while the Ontario election is on one level a clear contest of ideology, the shifts and changes to the major parties’ “machines” are fast becoming the story of this race. In at least 25 of the province’s 55 swing ridings, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) is urging union activists to help out Liberal, not New Democrat, candidates. That’s a potentially game-changing defection, considering the NDP’s past reliance on organized labour to find its voters and get them to the polls.


The union bosses claim they are acting for their own survival. Two years ago, they note, the Progressive Conservatives issued a white paper calling for changes to labour laws that would strip unions of many of their powers. Then, in the first week of the current campaign, PC Leader Tim Hudak announced plans to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, cementing his status as a blood enemy of Big Labour. Meantime, says OFL president Sid Ryan, the federation had commissioned its own polling suggesting that in many constituencies Grit candidates enjoy the best hope of defeating the local Tory.

So that’s for whom he told his people to campaign. “This is not something I’m shy to say,” Ryan says. “Stopping Hudak is our No.1 priority. The future of the labour movement is hanging in the balance. I have to do what’s right for the labour movement.”

The Progressive Conservative leader’s rhetoric would be less intimidating to the left were his own machine not capable of delivering victory. Hudak’s hardline messaging is part of a modernized operation that combines digital technology with old-school door-knocking. Some of the workers sign up through the party website; others are party loyalists from the time they were old enough to vote, but as political volunteers go, their dedication is unsurpassed. Unlike in the 1970s, the era of Bill Davis’s fabled Big Blue Machine, they spend little time trying to sell the party platform. “The whole point of door-knocking is not to talk to people,” explains campaign spokesman Will Stewart. “I mean, that’s great. But the idea behind voter contact now is to find out where our support lies.”

Indeed, the canvassers could now be thought of as glorified data clerks: What they learn about a resident’s sympathies is aggregated and sliced at party headquarters, then sent back to riding officials in charge of making sure small-c conservatives get out on voting day. Enthusiastic supporters might be recruited to put up signs, or to drive voters to the polls. The point of the exercise, however, is to build up the central database.

It’s a modernized version of the wedge politics that twice propelled Mike Harris to majorities in the 1990s (a party that ignites strong favour among 45 per cent of voters, Harris’s team correctly reasoned, has a better chance of winning than one that resonates weakly with 55). The anxiety it induces among Tory foes has in large measure defined the campaign. “I’ll give Hudak credit,” acknowledges Ryan. “The red meat he’s throwing to his base is working.”

Oddly enough, the indirect beneficiaries of that fear have been the Liberals, a party so scandal-ridden after 11 years in power that many pundits had consigned them to defeat. The Grits were already indirect recipients of support from Working Families, an organization backed by teacher and public sector unions that, in 2011, spent $2.1 million on ads attacking Hudak. Now, with Leader Kathleen Wynne outdoing the NDP when it comes to union-friendly politicking, the support from organized labour is arriving in more tangible form. Upset over Horwath’s decision to vote down a budget that would have preserved public sector jobs through deficit spending, leaders of the province’s biggest labour organizations are echoing Ryan’s call for union members to hit the ground on behalf of any candidate that looks capable of beating the local Tory. Given that the Liberals are polling at about 33 per cent, compared to 21 per cent for the New Democrats, that’s an invitation in many ridings to abandon the NDP.

For that, the union leaders make no apology. “Quite frankly, [Wynne’s] government was more sensitized to what was necessary for workers than the NDP seemed to be,” shrugs Pat Dillon, head of the powerful Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario. Like the OFL, the council has commissioned its own polling in tight ridings and has been encouraging its affiliate unions—from pipefitters to Teamsters—to canvass, give money and help get voters to the polls in the name of beating Tories. “Some are good at it and some are lazy at it,” says Dillon, but with 150,000 members to call on, “they can make a big difference.”

That shift in support has, in turn, forced the NDP to retool its own election machine, replacing boots with smarts and technology (though the party says it has seen no drop in its volunteer base). Central to that effort, say senior campaign officials, is a state-of-the-art database capable of amassing 5,000 points of information on a single constituent—the better to figure out whether he or she might be receptive to the party’s message. “We build out profiles, particularly of those we put in the broad category of swing voters, switchers, independents or persuadables,” explains an NDP adviser with knowledge of the system, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We start with obvious things like age and gender. Then we build on language, culture-ethnic group, along with consumer data like what kind of magazines they read or what kind of cars they drive.”

The effect has been to reorient the NDP campaign away from its industrial strongholds like Hamilton, Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie and toward densely populated suburbs like Brampton and Scarborough. For many voters in these areas—lodged in apartment towers and struggling to make ends meet—the old battles between labour and big business don’t mean a lot, say NDP organizers, yet they’re as alive as long-time New Democrats to issues like social justice, income equality and fiscal prudence. Meantime, the new system has yielded at least a few delightful surprises. “I was not aware that Sikh hipsters were a thing in Brampton,” says one senior NDP adviser. “But it turns out they are, and we’ve definitely got that vote cornered.”

Whether their method can draw the NDP into contention before the June 12 election is an open question. Time is short, and the closer the province gets to voting day, the greater the likelihood that anti-PC voters will pick a party. If the union message gets through, the NDP could wind up with third-party status for the fifth time since Bob Rae led it to victory in 1993. Hard to imagine anyone in the party—even the doubting Thomases who wrote the letter—calling that a win.