It's all rah-rah on monday morning when Howard Hampton arrives at the Royal York Hotel to meet members of the Ontario Federation of Labour executive board. There's mutual backslapping for past labour battles and best wishes for the election campaign ahead. But barely below the surface glow of good feelings, there's anxiety, not only among the NDPers, whose party is barely in the double digits in public opinion polls, but also in the Ontario labour movement.
Unions, it turns out, have been shedding members ever since the Tories took power eight years ago. After enjoying a temporary increase in numbers while the NDP was in power, labour has been in free fall ever since. In the mid-90s, when the NDP left office, 33 per cent of Ontario workers carried union cards. Today, only 27 per cent do. To add insult to injury, an Ontario government Web site that aims to attract foreign investment celebrates the declining rate of organization. "It's now the second-lowest in Canada,' it brags.
But labour's problem is even more serious than those numbers indicate. That's because the Liberals have promised to maintain the Tories' labour law legacy if elected. The new rules have made organizing unions more difficult by adding a requirement for a formal vote. Before, having employees sign cards was enough. And because the Tories cancelled penalties for bosses who intimidate workers during organizing drives, those votes are harder to win. Then there's the fact that Tory changes permit employers to hire replacement workers during strikes.
Liberal MPP George Smitherman defends the Grits' status quo labour position when I drop by his campaign headquarters at Bloor and Sherbourne. "Having the pendulum swing from one set of legislation to another, from an NDP to a Tory regime, becomes difficult from a public policy standpoint,' he says. "We're looking to have a stable policy environment and to work with people in labour and, quite frankly, in business, to make Ontario a jurisdiction that suffers from as little labour disruption as possible.'
So what are unions to do at a time like this, faced with the ogre of a Tory government they desperately want to dethrone, an NDP with superb policy but little chance of winning and a Liberal party with better electoral prospects but committed to maintaining Mike Harris's labour legacy?
Some unions - the Canadian Union of Public Employees, for example - are sticking with the trailing social democrats, rationalizing that they need NDPers in the legislature to keep an eye on the Liberals.
Other labour bodies are being less directional. Peggy Nash of the Canadian Auto Workers says they've sent a cheque (for $100,000) to the central NDP campaign, and there will be CAW members working in some NDP priority ridings. However, the main message to the rank and file will be to vote against the Tories - whether for the Liberals or the NDP. The CAW, she says, appointed a task force to gather the rank and file's views about politics and the union's role in it. "Our members told us they didn't want us telling them how to vote,' says Nash.
Similarly, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union have staff assigned to a few key NDP and Liberal ridings. The union's reps believe its 100,000 members can, in particular strategic situations, have an enormous influence on the outcome. OPSEU has calculated, says Randy Robinson, that if a mere 6,000 votes had been cast otherwise in the last election (in ridings where the Libs and Tories were neck and neck), a different government would have ruled Queen's Park.
The low-energy political intervention is certainly in marked contrast to the run-up to the last election, when the words "strategic voting' were on every anti-Tory voter's lips. In the end, of course, it failed - the Tories were re-elected, the Liberals lost even with the all-out effort from unions and social justice groups, and the NDP was almost wiped out.
The union effort may be less formal this time, but many NDPers worry about a similar near-death experience on October 2 if the Tories stay even with the Grits in the polls, as they did in the public opinion surveys that appeared early in the campaign. The way some NDPers see it, the more it looks like the Libs are headed for power, the more likely it is that soft NDPers will stick with Hampton, no longer having to fear a vote for their first choice will accidentally return the Tories.
Despite the fear factor, NDPers do have one thing to feel good about after the first chapter of the campaign. They've promised to bring in a public auto insurance plan, a time-warp back to the 90s, when Bob Rae made the same vow only to renege on it when he found himself in office. Voters, now as then, find public auto one of the best things the NDP has to offer.
Party strategists are pleasantly surprised that media reportage is bypassing the sad history, discussing the policy on its merits. This, they believe, is a good omen. After all, an 18-year-old male driver, the demographic that now pays most under private insurance, was only six when Rae chickened out on public auto.
On top of that, says MPP Peter Kormos, insurance rates are rising even more dramatically now, and the NDP has powerful allies it did not have back then, notably the Consumers Association of Canada. For Kormos, it's a poetic justice to have public auto insurance back on the agenda, as it is for Hampton. They were two of its biggest backers then, but Kormos recalls that at the fateful cabinet meeting where the plan was nixed, Hampton was away at a meeting in the Northwest Territories.
"He got bushwhacked,' Kormos says. "He was given the green light to take a trip when some of the parties knew full well that this issue was going to be resolved at cabinet.' But Bob Rae is no longer leader, says Kormos contentedly. Will voters finally notice?