By Doug Nesbitt
This Labour Day, the new Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole released a video talking frankly about the massacre of jobs in manufacturing, energy and forestry. He says too many are “living in quiet desperation.”
In the video, O’Toole attacks not just “big government” for lousy free trade negotiations, but also “corporate and financial powerbrokers” who only care about shareholders and accessing cheap labour abroad. O’Toole singles out China.
O’Toole’s solution is a “Canada First” economic strategy “that doesn’t cater to elites and special interests,” and promises higher wages. O’Toole even drops the word “solidarity” while closing out his Labour Day address.
O’Toole’s economic nationalism
If O’Toole and the Conservative Party of Canada stay on this message, it represents a new economic nationalism that once upon a time came from the ranks of organized labour – especially during the big free trade wars and plant closure battles of the 1980s and 1990s.
O’Toole and other Conservatives saw how Trump outflanked his centre-right opposition by publicly opposing NAFTA and talking openly about good jobs being lost. Trump’s trade policy was America First. O’Toole loves it so much, he’s slapped a “Made in Canada” sticker on it.
Learning from Trump’s 2016 victory in rustbelt states like Michigan, O’Toole’s recent record in parliament has paved the way for this new message. He has consistently criticized the Liberals in achieving nothing in the terrible North American Free Trade Agreement, and he has cited the closure of GM Oshawa to attack the ruling Liberals as well. He uses examples of smaller, suffering manufacturing operations to further hammer Trudeau’s government.
O’Toole can sound genuine because he comes from Bowmanville in eastern Ontario, next door to industrial Oshawa. He also attended Royal Military College in Kingston. Both Oshawa and Kingston, as well as neighbouring Peterborough, Belleville, Napanee and Brockville have all been decimated by deindustrialization over the past three decades. O’Toole actually has an idea of what the hell is going on.
And back in February, O’Toole also blew his top when Teck Industries abandoned its development plans in the Alberta Oil Sands. Teck claimed the project would create an estimated 2,500 operating jobs and 7,000 temporary construction jobs. “The Teck Mine cancellation is an insult to every working Canadian,” declared O’Toole.
But O’Toole is still a Conservative, which means any appeal to working people is serving a different agenda.
O’Toole and GM Oshawa
When GM Oshawa was closed and nearly 3,000 jobs wiped out, O’Toole spit no fire like he did over Teck. As the Conservative MP for the neighbouring riding of Durham, O’Toole didn’t even go to war for his own constituents who worked at the plant. In his Twitter video on the closure, he could only say it was a “sad day” before rambling on about lower taxes and less “big government” regulation for corporations.
While O’Toole gussied up for his Twitter video, some Oshawa autoworkers and residents refused to live in “quiet desperation.” They got together and launched a campaign demanding the GM Oshawa plant come under public ownership and be retool for green vehicle production.
The entire Green Jobs Oshawa proposal was costed out and discovered to be far below the cost of recent oil company and pipeline bailouts. It also incorporated the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ demand to green the enormous Canada Post fleet. Here was the high wage, “Canada First” policy bubbling up a short drive from O’Toole’s riding office. O’Toole did nothing and said nothing.
When the pandemic hit, the Green Jobs Oshawa campaign, demanded the plant reopen and produce PPE for essential workers. A few jobs were created as a result, but not the big change campaigners have been fighting for. Again, O’Toole was nowhere to be found.
When O’Toole says he won’t serve “big government” and “special interests”, we already know it means “public ownership” and “union jobs”. The Conservatives hate public ownership and hate unions. And so, O’Toole’s Canada First strategy begins to fall apart. Higher wages are impossible without “special interests” like unions. Creating and enforcing a “Canada First” economic strategy is impossible without so-called “big government” regulations and policy.
Canada First, human rights last
O’Toole has another Canada First strategy in mind. In fact, it started under the Harper Conservatives and was completed by the Trudeau Liberals.
A month into the pandemic, O’Toole took the time to praise the multinational corporation General Dynamics producing Light Armoured Vehicles for export to Saudi Arabia. It was a deal brokered by the Harper Conservatives and concluded by the Trudeau Liberals.
Employing 2,000 (union) workers in London, Ontario, the LAVs were being used by the Saudi ruling class in their bloody five-year invasion of Yemen and to murder its own people. O’Toole also praised General Dynamics for producing PPE – while he ignored his own constituents and neighbours pressing for PPE production at GM Oshawa.
So when it comes to “big government” and “big business”, O’Toole has no problem with them when it serves a blood-soaked trickle-down politics. O’Toole is recycling Reaganism in two ways. First, he favours funding death squads abroad and telling the Western public they’re freedom fighters. Second, he supports huge government favours for military corporations.
No surprise then that O’Toole’s big mouth was zipped tight when Harper lost $3.5 billion in its sale of GM shares following the Conservative bailout of the multinational during the 2008-9 Great Recession. And in his 8 years in parliament, O’Toole didn’t lift a finger to rollback NAFTA. In fact, the Conservatives pressed ahead with new free trade agreements, including a 31-year trade deal with China – which O’Toole singles out in his Labour Day video.
O’Toole has deep allegiances to corporate power. When GM Oshawa closed, he mentioned his father worked there. He didn’t reveal that his dad was a supervisor: one of management’s shopfloor enforcers who lived and breathed anti-unionism in their daily war with the men and women on the assembly line.
After his military career as an officer, he became a high-powered corporate lawyer for Proctor & Gamble (P&G), one of the 50 largest multinational corporations in the world.
A couple hours drive up Highway 401 from his home of Bowmanville is the city of Brockville, population 21,000. Already suffering from years of deindustrialization, Brockville suffered another big blow in 2017 when P&G announced the closure of its plant employing 480 workers. Production of popular brand name products Bounce and Swiffer is moving to a plant in West Virginia where so-called “Right to Work” laws are aimed at killing unions and their political influence.
Back down the highway towards Bowmanville, Belleville celebrated as P&G announced a new investment at its local plant, promising 100 new jobs. Net loss: 380 jobs. Where was O’Toole? Nowhere.
Workers and Planet First
Even if O’Toole’s new Canada First policies are highly selective, unworkable bullshit (just like Trump’s), they’re going to get some popular traction because organized labour and its fair-weather friends in political office have abandoned the fight against corporate trade deals and the job-destroying, town-trashing results.
There was almost no labour campaign during the latest round of NAFTA negotiations with Trump. This is far cry from the wars we fought in the 1980s and even the early 2000s against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
But it’s telling O’Toole won’t even mention the Green Jobs Oshawa initiative. He doesn’t even want people to hear about it, even if he’s trashing it. This points to a profound weakness on his part: Green Jobs Oshawa contains the kernel of a real democratic threat to corporate power and the energy companies that have O’Toole and the Conservatives in their back pocket.
Private capital’s priorities are profits, and they have no interest in retooling in the interest of workers and planet unless they get massive public subsidies and favourable legislation (while fighting worker rights tooth and nail). This is the route the Conservatives will take if they ever stop doubling down on fossil fuel development.
Every worker who accepts climate change is real, and every union activist in forestry, energy, and manufacturing can follow the lead of Green Jobs Oshawa and begin developing plans for retooling and new production priorities. This process can help us lay the foundation for a new movement to save local jobs, uphold union wages and benefits, and make the transition to green production.
We can no longer live in “quiet desperation” waiting around for the established political parties to pursue this strategy. Corporate O’Toole and the Conservatives certainly haven’t.