Once a proponent of right-to-work laws who blamed unions for holding back job creation, Ontario’s new labour minister is promising “no surprises” for union members during his tenure in Premier Doug Ford’s government.
Monte McNaughton spent the summer meeting with more than 100 union leaders across the province. He even took Warren (Smokey) Thomas, the outspoken leader of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, to one of his favourite haunts for lunch.
“The number one thing labour leaders have told me in the first few weeks on the job is they don’t want any surprises,” McNaughton said in an interview to coincide with Labour Day.
“There’s not going to be surprises out of my office. We’re going to work together.”
Union leaders told the Star they welcome the pledge they heard in person from McNaughton, who moved to the portfolio in a late June cabinet shuffle, and hope it comes true. “We’ve already had a few surprises,” said Patrick Dillon of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario.
McNaughton’s olive branch of a “fair and reasonable approach” follows a tumultuous first year in office for the Ford government as it works to eliminate annual deficits.
Ford cut the size of Toronto city council in half during the municipal election campaign, axed a $1 increase in the minimum wage to $15 amid moves to roll back the previous Liberal government’s labour reforms that included improved notice of work schedules and paid sick days, cut teachers in a money-saving plan to increase class sizes, and proposed limits on raises for unionized public sector workers.
“The Ford government certainly has been dragging us backwards when it comes to trying to make gains for everyday working people, whether that’s the freezing of the minimum wage increase, whether that’s rolling back employment standards changes that helped the most vulnerable workers, precarious workers,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Friday.
She also slammed Ford for doing little to try to save 2,600 unionized jobs at General Motors in Oshawa after it was announced the auto assembly operation would close in December. The Unifor union subsequently pressured GM into keeping 300 positions in stamping, sub-assembly and autonomous vehicle testing.
Thomas said he will take McNaughton at his word — for now.
“I believe him when he says he wants to do the right thing and whether he gets to do that is the next question. Time will tell,” added Thomas, recalling McNaughton was a “big fan” of right-to-work laws in a 2013 policy paper he developed under a previous Progressive Conservative leader, Tim Hudak.
The veteran OPSEU leader said he expressed concern over a bite at the Coach House diner near Queen’s Park about continued prospects of a right-to-work law.
Such a measure would scrap the Rand Formula requiring employees in a unionized shop to pay dues regardless of whether they join. Such laws have been criticized as “right-to-work-for-less” measures because they weaken unions.
“He said, ‘we have no interest, no desire, and we will not be going there,” Thomas recounted.
“I will hold him to that.”
Before the Hudak PCs dropped the right-to-work idea in a hotly contested 2014 Niagara Falls byelection won by the NDP’s Wayne Gates, McNaughton defended it as a way “to create the conditions for job creators to invest in Ontario … giving workers a choice creates winning conditions.”
Speculation around the legislature after the June cabinet shuffle had McNaughton going into the labour portfolio after a year as minister of infrastructure to implement some of his previous ideas.
In that 2014 byelection, he charged that “the NDP and union elites are keeping Ontario a have-not province” and contributed to the loss of 300,000 manufacturing jobs since the 2008-09 recession.
But McNaughton is now adopting a softer tone and touting his first job, helping load building and construction materials for trades workers at his family’s hardware and lumber store in Newbury, west of London, where he also helped form a joint health and safety committee with staff.
“I’m doing things differently for a Conservative minister of labour,” McNaughton told the Star, repeatedly referring to the need for safer workplaces, fewer deaths and more inspections of employers with “bad” records.
“I want an open dialogue with unions. We’re obviously not going to agree on everything but my door is always open and I want them to know they can bring their concerns. We can find common ground.”
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Dillon suggested to McNaughton that he follow in the footsteps of former Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis by setting up an advisory board of unions and employers to ensure any new proposals get a thorough discussion of their pros, cons and impacts on all concerned.
“Monte’s a pretty decent guy and open guy to talk to,” added Dillon, who has also run the Working Families Coalition that aired attack ads against the PCs in previous elections.
“I find it refreshing we have a minister coming in with that approach.”