Op-ed by Scotty Hertz
The massive condo project getting rammed in around the corner from our house has been super quiet lately. The orange vests gathering at the morning tailgate were down to about eight workers at last count in mid May. I spoke to a worker as he was clocking off one day, just to see how it was going.
“Pretty quiet up there these days.” I said.
“Yeah I wish they would set up a picket so I could go home.”
I’m not sure what his trade is but he wasn’t scabbing it, technically. He’s definitely not essential anymore, even though we were all deemed such in the high tide of COVID.
I haven’t heard the e-word applied to the trades at any point this year. The mantra was “You’re all essential” until we weren’t, as the silence on this job site attests to. It’s looking like picket lines aren’t essential either.
Welcome to the strange new construction trades metaverse of Ontario.
“I love ’em”
The day after this chat, TVO’s Agenda hosted a Zoom conversation titled “Who Will Win Ontario’s Labour Vote?” One of the guests was LiUNA VP Joseph Mancinelli, who spent most of the conversation singing the praises of PC Labour Minister Monte McNaughton and Premier Ford.
When asked about potential endorsements, he was unequivocal: “We have endorsed Doug Ford.”
I thought I had misheard.
This took a minute to process. An executive of a striking trade union appeared on an election coverage panel and somehow managed to make absolutely no mention of said strike, while declaring support for a party that is fundamentally anti-worker at its core. The show also happens to be sponsored by the Ontario Real Estate Association. It is without precedent and should be setting off alarm bells in every union office in the province.
The hits kept on coming when days later the IBEW Construction Council of Ontario dropped a press release announcing its “full endorsement of Doug Ford and the Ontario PC party for the June 2nd provincial election.”
The Council is a subgroup within the IBEW but most people parsed this as “the electricians endorse the PCs”. It’s still significant yet no less bizarre. By the end of the week a whopping six unions had declared that they were backing the Conservatives.
“We’ve supported the hard-working women and men in this province, the union members. We always have. I love ’em,” gushed Ford.
All of this has left Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath stumbling over her replies when asked about these unlikely friendships.
“It’s not all of the unions” she said while on the hot seat at a Global TV sit down. But it’s six unions more than normal and this is highly abnormal.
So what the hell is going on this time around?
Del Duca vs McNaughton
There are heavy clues embedded in the endorsements and comments revealing that both the Liberals and the NDP have ignored the trades for so long that political defections were inevitable. LiUNA has a massive hate-on for Ontario Liberal leader Stephen Del Duca, which goes back to his days as Economic Development minister and his legal work for LiUNA’s chief rival the Carpenters Union (who are on strike as I write).
In the last election LiUNA advised workers to vote “not Liberal,” but this time they are going all in for the well manicured wealthy businessman who has a unique gift of being able to connect with working people while simultaneously keeping his corporate friends happy. Many workers continue to be mesmerized by this barely credible balancing act.
The IBEW-CCO’s press release gives a bit more direct insight. Beyond receiving a large cash injection for training, which any government could have (and should have) initiated for them, the PCs and McNaughton in particular have taken the time to actively listen to the IBEW-CCO’s concerns:
“From the moment of his appointment, he began travelling across the province to visit training centres, meeting with skilled trades workers and really taking the time to understand our complex issues. The Minister was in regular contact with all IBEW locals across the province.”
The amount of goodwill that a simple action such as this carries has been gravely underestimated by the other parties. At every opportunity McNaughton will sing the praises of the skilled trades and is actively encouraging as many people as possible to pursue it as a career. McNaughton said: “I want young people and parents to know that university isn’t the only pathway to be successful in life. There’s great opportunities in the trades.”
It’s a positive and welcoming narrative that’s nearly impossible to counter. Monte is a friend who is getting it done. Ignore the hard hats at your peril.
Courting the lunch-bucket brigade
The Blue Team have perfected a duplicitous approach to labour relations that makes for interesting election theatre. Back in 2019, the one-day teacher’s strike was met with classic PC denouncements. Yet, countless construction projects have been idle for the entire election cycle so far, but Ford only expresses endless admiration for those of us in the lunch-bucket brigade.
The Steelworker’s union might be backing the NDP but Ford managed to penetrate labour fortress Stelco, donning a branded jacket and blue hardhat to shake a ton of hands in time for the 6 o’clock news.
This is easy to mock but these are master-class campaign tactics, with any and all counter-points getting lost in the wake – if they are even on the mainstream radar at all. “I love ‘em” is what people are seeing, whether it is true or not.
The PCs have also dismantled the widely hated, bureaucratic and top heavy College of Trades that gave no net benefit to anyone belonging to it, which has won them plenty of favour among many trade workers. It is unlikely that the new version will offer up anything fresh but a membership fee reduction has been popular. It has echoes of the license plate sticker rebate.
The reconstituted trades oversight body is now called Skilled Trades Ontario and its appointed board has representatives from the IBEW-CCO and LiUNA at the table with an assortment of hand-picked PC appointees. Its structure is not random. In light of this, they couldn’t be expected to bite the baby-smooth and callus-free hands that feed them…at least not this time around. But will the bromance last beyond the June 2nd election?
The Blue Kool-Aid
Ford has said of the trades that support him that “I’ll always have their backs, always.”
Yet, someone who gives a pat on the back to one set of workers while actively scheming to knife countless others can’t be trusted in the slightest. It’s not clear if the shafting will come post election or further along but it will come. I would bet my Red Seal certificate on it.
Thousands are going to drink the blue kool-aid that might not have otherwise, and no amount of tweeting or blogging will stem the tide this time around, if ever. The PCs have finally capitalized on the divisions within the House of Labour and until that gap is closed and the internecine squabbling stops, it’s going to be more of the same for the foreseeable future.
When the next election rolls around I’ll definitely be surrounded by over-priced condos that not one worker I know, union or non, will be able to afford to buy or live in. Any future job action will need to make a helluva lot more noise than the near silent collective shrug that happened this time around.
About the Author
Scotty Hertz is a 309A Master Electrician and undergraduate student in Guelph, Ontario. He is a co-host of the long-running news and political affairs show Open Sources Guelph on CFRU-FM.