It’s time to confront and break down the barriers between conservatives and organized labour and foster closer cooperation and the adoption of public policies based on shared values and interests.
We conservatives are strongly pro-free market and pro-wealth creation. Markets will only work well and deliver widespread prosperity if they have the support of strong community institutions. Among them are labour unions which provide workers with power in the labour market and representation in the workplace. They afford solidarity, mutual aid, bargaining power, and workplace representation, all of which can benefit workers, their families, and communities—both economically and socially. Especially for conservatives, who understand better than anyone the importance of institutions, unions are worth defending.
Unfortunately, the labour movement has faded toward irrelevance and alienated many of its members with an excessive focus on identity politics and social justice activism. On the other side, conservative hostility to organized labour remains stubborn, rooted in political and historic rather than differences in principle. Many conservatives are simply triggered by language like “solidarity,” “mutual aid,” and “bargaining power.” How many times have we heard, “why bother reaching out to unions, they hate us implacably?”
In their exhaustive study, “Canada’s New Working Class,” authors Sean Speer, Sosina Bezu, and Renze Naute say, “If the working class was a singular voting bloc, it would have won the popular vote in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.” The greatest challenge facing many conservative parties in Canada, especially the Conservative Party of Canada, is a stagnant, inefficiently distributed voter base. Finding and motivating new conservative voters—especially in battleground ridings and regions—is a strategic imperative. Working-class Canadians, with shared values and alienated by the frivolity of progressive politics, are a natural source of new conservative voters.
The political pay-off for the conservatives in overcoming their aversions and forging bonds with the labour movement is immense, supported by research and obvious anecdotal evidence, none greater than the most recent Ontario general election in which Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario PC Party received the endorsement of every major building and trade union.
Premier Ford has shown us the way. At the forefront of Ford’s effort to build bridges with labour is Monte McNaughton, minister of labour, who has been at the helm of the PCs’ “Working for Workers” agenda including an increase to the minimum wage, an introduction of the “right to disconnect,” and efforts to ensure trades unions are overseen by a body that represents them through Skilled Trades Ontario.
McNaughton’s playbook is clearly based on the Jason Kenney outreach model that made the federal conservative party so successful with new Canadians during the early and middle years of the Harper government. This strategy recognizes that the workers represented by these unions demographically and attitudinally look a lot like conservative voters. The Ontario PCs have turned large numbers of potential voters into actual voters through targeted policy announcements and a significant amount of time spent talking directly to these voters and their leadership.
Small c-conservatives too often cede economic policymaking to our libertarian cousins. The “unions are bad” opinion that is pervasive in the conservative movement and parties is a great challenge. Overcoming it is the mission of the Common Good Project. It isn’t easy to change long-held opinion, but recent history proves it can be done through disciplined effort over the long term. The starting point is the recognition that conservatives and labour are aligned in their values and interests, especially the belief that everyone who wants to better their lives through hard work should be given a fair chance to do so.