Elections in Ontario take place this Thursday, and IBEW members have worked hard in the weeks and months leading up to Election Day to educate their fellow working Ontarians about what’s at stake.

Ontario Legislative Building
Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr user James G (cropped).

“People are upset with politics in general,” said Hamilton Local 105 Assistant Business Manager Steve Fox, one of the IBEW’s most engaged activists working to turn out the province’s vote. “The wealth gap is growing, and people aren’t sure where to turn.”

Many members of Fox’s local have turned out to work phone banks, put out yard signs, and knock on doors, but he admitted he could always use more boots on the ground.

“We still have some really dedicated people working,” he said, “but many members are disengaged.”

Most of voters’ attention seems to be focused on the race for Ontario’s premier. Essentially, it’s a three-way contest for the province’s top elected office, featuring Liberal Party leader Kathleen Wynne — the incumbent — against the New Democratic Party’s Andrea Horwath and the Progressive Conservative Party’s Doug Ford.

For Kitchener Local 804 Business Manager Mark Watson, getting ready for the June 7 election “has been a bit of a whirlwind,” he said. That’s thanks in large part to a 2014 change in Ontario’s campaign finance laws relating to advertising and direct donations. While the new rules were written to limit corporations’ potential for outsized influence on elections, they also prevent unions from donating money directly to political parties or candidates.

In the past, IBEW’s local unions in Ontario would approve donations to political parties and/or local labor-friendly candidates on behalf of the membership. Under the new law, only individuals in the province can donate to a candidate who best represents their interests.

“It’s really been a bit of a challenge,” Watson said.

Even so, the labor movement has remained politically active throughout the province. Last fall, for example, some IBEW local unions in the province joined their fellow members of the Ontario Federation of Labor in a vote to support Andrea Horwath and down-ballot New Democratic Party candidates in this Thursday’s election.

“Horwath is right there with us,” Watson said. “She’s not without her flaws, but she has the best plan for all of us.”

Among Horwath’s labor-oriented promises is a pledge to invest $57 million annually to create job opportunities in the various trades.

In Ontario, a party needs 63 seats to win majority control, an achievement that generally makes it easier for that party and its leader to enact their legislative priorities. The remaining minority parties then must find ways to work with each other in an effort to balance out the majority party’s power.

“Ontario is a very labor-friendly province, and historically, Liberals as a party have been good for us,” said Braydon Potter, the president of Ottawa Local 586. During the last provincial election in 2014, the IBEW and most other labor unions supported Wynne’s campaign, and worked to help put her party in power.

But since 2014, “they have turned their backs on us, so we could not support them again,” Potter said.

One example of this shift was a 2016 change in provincial law — known as Schedule 17 of Omnibus Budget Bill 70 — that took power over certain building trades away from the industry-run Ontario College of Trades and shifted it to the government-run Ontario Labour Relations Board.

IBEW was among the unions that lobbied against the move on the grounds that it would weaken the value of apprenticeships and take away jobs from members of IBEW and those in other trades. (See the January 2017 Electrical Worker.)

Three candidates for premier lead the polls going into Ontario’s provincial elections on June 7. From left: Kathleen Wynne, Doug Ford and Andrea Horwath.
Photo Credits: Creative Commons/Flickr user michael_swan (cropped); Creative Commons/Flickr user HiMY SYeD(cropped); and Creative Commons/Flickr user Ontario NDP (cropped).

“We started protesting [Schedule 17] right after it was introduced,” Potter said. “The Liberals then asked us to stop protesting, saying they would stop pushing it if we did.

“We stopped, and they pushed it through anyway,” he said.

The year before that, Ontario’s Liberal-majority government privatized Hydro One, the province’s electrical utility, arranging to sell off up to 60 percent and use the proceeds to help pay for a variety of infrastructure projects.

“Hydro One work is mostly union,” Fox said. The utility has agreements with the 11 locals under IBEW’s Construction Council of Ontario.

“Privatizing was a very contentious move,” Fox said. “When publicly owned assets privatize, it creates downward pressure on compensation for all workers.”

In the three years since the move toward privatization began, electricity costs in Ontario have skyrocketed. That’s one reason why putting Hydro One back under government control is a key plank in the New Democratic Party’s platform, a move that the party hopes will eventually reduce electricity costs by at least 30 percent.

A more recent political complication in the province’s election landscape came earlier this year when Patrick Brown, the Progressive Conservative Party’s leader and presumptive candidate for premier, resigned after two women accused him of sexually harassing them earlier in his political career. To take Brown’s place, the party chose Doug Ford, a businessman who briefly served on Toronto’s city council.

Legislation that makes it harder for shops to organize would likely be on the table with a Progressive Conservative majority in control of Ontario’s Legislature, Watson said, as could the gutting of workplace safety regulations in the name of fiscal responsibility.

“Each province regulates its own safety laws,” Watson said, “but safety also costs money.”

Fox noted that Ford’s Progressive Conservative party, in the past, has promoted a number of ideas that should sound alarm bells for members of IBEW and the larger labor movement in Ontario. For example, ahead of the last provincial election in 2014, the party floated the harmful notion of turning Ontario into a so-called “right to work” province, allowing workers to opt-out of paying union dues even as those unions would still be required to represent all workers covered by collective-bargaining agreements.

Bringing to Ontario the practice known as “double-breasting,” which allows a company to have both union and nonunion shops under the same roof, is another worrisome concept considered by the Progressive Conservative Party.

“Double-breasting tilts work toward nonunion shops, and cuts off union shops at the knees,” Fox said.

Watson said that no matter how voters cast ballots on Thursday, he hopes they will read up on the candidates for office beforehand and make informed decisions at the ballot box. To that end, he said, member-to-member contact and education have played important roles in this election cycle.

“We reached out to our membership, put up signs, knocked on doors,” Potter said.

Fox said that he tries to emphasize how important elections are for IBEW members.

“I try to talk to members through an IBEW lens, from a union standpoint,” he said. “I say, ‘This is who we support and why.’”

Members need think of themselves as well as the rest of the population, Fox said.

“Vote as members, as citizens, without getting caught up in all the rhetoric,” Fox said. “It’s not just about us; it’s also about the next generation.”