It looks very much like Ontario premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (PC) will win another majority government in the imminent provincial election. On the campaign trail, Ford has attempted to reinvent himself as a supporter of working people, and some unions seem to have bought the act.
As the election campaign moves into its final week, Ford has collected the endorsement of four unions — IBB, IBEW, IUPAT, and LiUNA. These construction unions have been won over by Ford’s promises to build more public transit and infrastructure and to clear the way for more housing construction to deal with the province’s housing crisis.
While the construction unions have always been more conservative than the rest of the labor movement, this level of endorsement is both unprecedented and deeply at odds with organized labor’s attitude toward Ford when he was first elected as premier in 2018. Several months after coming into office, Ford’s government repealed a number of progressive labor law reforms instituted in the dying days of the previous Liberal government. These included an increase of the minimum wage to $15 —rising to $15.50 in October 2022 — as well as paid sick days.
The pandemic was a game changer. Beginning in late 2021, Ford’s government signaled a shift in labor policy. It announced an increase in the minimum wage and instituted three paid sick days. Additionally, although it did not grant them employee status, it provided some minimum standards for gig workers — a first in Ontario. It also modernized other elements of employment standards, such as banning noncompete agreements and introducing disconnecting-from-work rules, freeing employees from work-related communications in their off-time.
These overtures to labor are a cause for concern about continued class dealignment in Ontario. In an election where the center and the Left are doing little to distinguish themselves, Ford’s platform suggests that the election is his to lose. If he does attain his expected majority, it will signal the need for the Left to redouble its organizing efforts. It will also signal the need for the New Democratic Party (NDP), labor’s ostensible home party, to safeguard its left flank and not cede its terrain to canny right-wing politicking.
Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party is not promising any further changes to labor law, but their campaign is targeting working-class people with some pocketbook populism — proposing tax relief for low-income earners, a cut to gas taxes, and the abolition of license plate renewal fees. As Sam Gindin has long noted, decades of neoliberalism have lowered workers’ expectations. Because the bar has been set so low, such tax cuts and the removal of fees act as a de facto wage increase for many workers.
Ford is well acquainted with the strategy of populist pandering — the same playbook was used by his late brother, Rob Ford, when he was mayor of Toronto. Ford, unlike many other conservative politicians, is not afraid to talk about minimum-wage workers. But his proposals are very different than those of the Left. In 2018, he laid out his vision for the Ontario legislature:
The people on minimum wage — we’re actually going to give them a tax credit. Unlike the Liberals, who jacked their taxes up over $1,000, we’re going to reduce their taxes by $850, putting more money into their pocket. That’s what you call tax relief. That’s what you call supporting minimum wage workers.
This professed sympathy for workers does not extend to those in the Ontario public sector. They have had to endure a wage increase cap of 1 percent per year that Ford has shown no indication of lifting. The wage cap applies to health care workers, who in recent weeks have been protesting the fact that they worked through a pandemic only to find that inflation is eating away at their very modest wage gains. Making matters even worse, a shortage of nurses — no doubt partially a result of the wage cap — has made working conditions even more onerous.
Public sympathy for health care workers has risen because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, Ford’s closefisted dealing with public sector workers has not dented his lead in the polls. The premier’s opponents are offering different deals to workers. It remains to be seen whether these offers can sway the election outcome.
The Liberals are led by charisma black hole Steven Del Duca. But the party’s campaign is not about its leader — it is about the Liberal brand, which is strong in Ontario. The Liberals have managed to rise to second in the polls. This ascension comes on the heels of falling from governing party to third party status in the last election. After fifteen years in power, this backlash was likely inevitable.
The Liberals are offering up proposals like ten paid sick days, raising the minimum wage to $16, and, most ambitiously, transitioning to a four-day workweek. However, any discussion of unions is conspicuously lacking in the Liberal platform.
The Liberals, at both the provincial and federal levels, are infamous for campaigning from the left and then performing an about-face once attaining office. Their customary MO is such that they can be relied on to abandon the most progressive elements of their platform. In the unlikely chance the Liberals form government after June 2, this tendency bodes poorly for their platform promises.
The NDP is the official opposition in the Ontario legislature. After years of third-party status, they had a very good showing in 2018. At the time, they were the natural alternative to the tired Liberals and held appeal to any voters who wanted to stop Doug Ford. Helmed by party leader Andrea Horwath since 2009, the Ontario NDP has dramatically reversed its fortunes under her direction. However, even among NDP supporters, Horwath is a divisive figure. Many were critical of her previous election campaigns. Under her leadership, the party has attempted to leverage pocketbook populism and has resorted to right-wing hand-wringing over the size of the budget deficit.
The NDP is also promising ten paid sick days and a four-day workweek. The party is further promising a $20 minimum wage by 2026 and a ban on the use of scab labor during a strike. They have promised card check union certification in cases where 55 percent of members in a bargaining unit sign union cards. The creation of portable benefits for gig workers and an end to their misclassification as “independent contractors” is also on the table. All in all, the NDP’s labor platform is . . . not terrible. There are worthwhile offerings on the table, but it is hardly the full-throated list of demands it should be.
Seat losses are expected for the NDP. Some projections anticipate that they may manage to hold on to official opposition status by a hair, but their fortunes do not look good. A loss of seats will almost certainly spell the end of Horwath’s leadership. After thirteen years, this should prompt some much-needed soul-searching by the party.
The Path Forward
The pandemic is not over, but Ontario’s talking heads have made a habit of looking forward to a post-pandemic world in which Ford is the likely leader. At present, Ford is not offering up a slash-and-burn neoliberal agenda like previous PC governments in Ontario. But it is only a matter of time before his right-wing government will turn its attention to the deficit, which the party has promised to eliminate by 2028. Ontario’s economic growth will slow as interest rates increase, and the deficit is sure to become a hot-button issue again.
Challenging Ford’s unique brand of right-wing populism is a task that will require long-term energy and strategizing — it is not bound to this election cycle. Going forward, Ford will likely be vulnerable on the issue of housing. His plan to simply increase housing stock will probably not provide much relief. Investors are now the largest segment of housing owners in the province, and they will snap up much of the new construction. Organizing around public housing could prove to be a very powerful strategy for the Left.
The past several decades have seen an explosion of precarious work in Ontario, which is the province with the highest proportion of minimum-wage workers in Canada. There are, however, some signs of hope ahead. The campaign for paid sick days led by Justice for Workers helped to bring public scrutiny to bear on the issue. Recent union victories at places like PetSmart and Indigo bookstores indicate an uptick in retail organizing. Across Canada, retail has traditionally been an area where there has been very low unionization. It appears that changes are on the horizon.
These recent successful organizing drives signal what the labor movement in Ontario must do. Retail, precarious, and gig workers must organize. They must demand that the NDP fulfill its supposed remit and represent working people. Raising the expectations of workers will give them the confidence and power to demand more than a tax cut.