Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has run a strong campaign in the provincial election. He’s ahead in the polls, has performed well in the leaders’ debates and has earned endorsements from likely sources as well as some unlikely ones.
The most interesting endorsements of the lot? Four unions — the Laborers’ International Union of North America, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, IBEW Construction Council of Ontario and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) — have come out in support of Ford and the Ontario PC government. In the past, the words “Conservative” and “endorsed” have seldom passed the lips of union leaders and members in combination thereof.
Anti-Ford critics must surely be beside themselves. It’s one thing for former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion, a longtime Liberal, to endorse Ford. The influential municipal powerhouse has occasionally supported Conservative candidates, and endorsed Ford in the 2018 provincial election. But why would four labour unions support a Conservative politician who previously had issues with some public sector workers?
“I’m not gonna judge any other party. I’ll tell you, our families, be it my dad or my brother Rob or (nephew) Michael, we’ve supported the hard-working women and men in this province, the union members,” Ford said earlier this week at IUPAT’s headquarters. “We always have. I love ‘em.”
Anti-Ford critics must surely be beside themselves
That’s really what Ford has always thought about unions and the working class. Like other politicians, he’ll agree and disagree with some of their views. He may fight like cats and dogs with them every once in a while, but sees it as being the same as having a small, short-lived tiff with your parents, siblings, neighbours or the grocer down the street. He ultimately knows that blue-collar workers play a vital role in society and the provincial economy — and he’ll defend them and their unions to the bitter end.
This isn’t the first time that union leaders have stood in solidarity with Ford in some fashion, either. When he announced the provincial minimum wage would be raised to $15 an hour starting in January, OPSEU’s Smokey Thomas and now-former Unifor national leader Jerry Dias flanked him at the press conference. All those whose mouths that were left agape at this stunning visual can maybe pick up their jaws at long last.
Alas, it’s yet another example of how progressives and liberal elites just don’t understand how Ford Nation works and succeeds.
As I’ve written before, Ford Nation combines populist rhetoric and conservative principles. Ontarians from all walks of life are fed up with Big Government, high taxes and regular interference in their daily lives. Ford, like other members of his family (including his late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford), values individual rights, liberties and freedoms and wants to give more control back to the people.
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This means Ford stands up for the little guy as much as he stands up for business and the free market economy. Moreover, Ford gets what matters most to them. He may come from a different financial background and lifestyle, but his plain-spoken language and folky mannerisms — which are genuine personality traits — are something they can identify with. It’s also why they don’t get worked up about things if he makes a mistake or has to change course on a policy. We’re not infallible, meaning that ordinary people and prominent individuals both screw up every so often.
To be sure, these union endorsements are more directed at Ford than the PCs. If a different PC leader was at the helm, these endorsements likely wouldn’t have been forthcoming. Or not as many of them, at the very least.
However, Ford’s ability to acquire union endorsements does hold some important lessons for today’s Conservative politicians and parties.
Most modern Conservatives think differently on issues than union leaders and card-carrying union members. Nevertheless, they’ve been able to find common ground in the past. Canada’s federal PCs and the Reform Party both acquired some significant blue-collar support in elections, and former federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole tried to revive this last year. U.S.-based union members have supported House and Senate Republicans, as well as such presidential candidates as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have rebuilt relations with working people and earned their votes. We also can’t forget former U.S. president Donald Trump’s successful 2016 pitch to the blue-collar element in the Rust Belt and the “forgotten men and women.”
This means Ford stands up for the little guy
Creating a labour-friendly atmosphere similar to the one Ford and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton have successfully achieved isn’t an impossible task for federal conservatives, either. Focusing on free markets, trade liberalization and private enterprise are all important and necessary, but they can be balanced at times with such labour-oriented concerns as economic security, good wages, job creation and workers’ rights.
Hence, conservatives and union leaders need to regularly sit down at the bargaining table or in a political office to discuss grievances, concerns and policies. Keeping the lines of communication open will help reduce anti-union and anti-business rhetoric, and enhance intellectual discourse and the ability to find common ground. There won’t always be an easy answer, but there will be far less obstacles between them than what currently exists.
Ford has clearly figured it out with unions. Federal conservatives need to follow his lead.
Michael Taube, a columnist for Troy Media and Loonie Politics, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.