How do unions affect elections?

Organized labour hits campaign trail, too
By Sabrina Nanji
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 09/23/2015

With about a month to go before Canadians cast their ballots to choose the next prime minister, any and all organizations with a stake in Ottawa’s agenda are ramping up their campaigns — and unions are no exception.

While federal campaign finance laws make it illegal for trade unions (and corporations) to make direct financial contributions to political factions, their impact can still be felt on the campaign trail. But just how much influence do unions actually have on the outcome?

Last spring’s provincial election in Ontario saw now-Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals sweep Queen’s Park — a victory owed in part to the "Stop Hudak" campaign from the Ontario Federation of Labour and other unions urging voters not to choose Conservative leader Tim Hudak after he promised to slash 100,000 public sector jobs.

For the upcoming Oct. 19 election, the stage has been set a little differently. The latest round of polls has put the NDP in the lead, though with the Liberals and Conservatives hot on their heels.

And because most union-friendly and labour organizations have historically leaned towards the left, unions are coming at the election from a new and unprecedented place.

"Unions have never confronted a political terrain like this; it’s uncharted territory," said Larry Savage, director of Brock University’s Centre for Labour Studies in St. Catharines, Ont.

"The Conservatives are in third place and are the party unions would least like to see in government — and the party that has historically had a relationship with the unions, the NDP, is leading in national polls," Savage explained.

The dynamic means unions are more politically active now than ever before.

For Jerry Dias, president of the country’s largest private sector union and its more than 300,000 members, Unifor’s influence is not to be understated. The union’s strategy thus far has been to support the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservative contender in that riding, as well as supporting all of the incumbent New Democrats.

"Our preoccupation is going to be getting out the message and making sure they get out to vote because there’s no question we believe that if we mobilize our members then they can make a difference in this federal election," he said.

The union also has a complete breakdown of where its members live, said Dias, which can be a valuable bit of information — if a Liberal was poised to win over a Conservative by x number of votes, for example, the union would also know exactly how many of its members — or ballots — lived in that particular riding.

And whereas some of the other unions (including the United Steelworkers, Canadian Union of Public Employees and Ontario Federation of Labour) are pushing blanket support for the NDP, Dias said Unifor is applying the strategy as effectively as possible.

"You will find that the other unions are saying they support the NDP and our union says the same thing — but they won’t have any boots on the ground in areas where they know the NDP has no chance," Dias said.

"If there are ridings that are identified where the party has no chance, we don’t have the problem of saying that we support a Liberal to ensure that a Conservative doesn’t get elected."


Unifor’s plan is in line with the Quebec Federation of Labour, which is also pushing for strategic voting. While this will likely mean supporting the NDP in orange-washed Quebec, it could have a major impact in populous Ontario, the province oft cited as the key to election victory because it has 121 out of 338 seats for the taking, according to Savage.

"When it comes to electoral strategy, the labour movement in Ontario is not as organized as it could be. An example is how some unions are supporting strategic voting, and some unions are supporting blanket support for the NDP," he said, adding that unions have all but abandoned the Conservative party.

One example is the Seafarers’ International Union (SIU) of Canada, which supported the Tories in 2011 based on promises for change to Maritime policies. The SIU no longer supports the current Harper government — and in fact has requested a judicial review and has filed a challenge against the federal government in court over temporary work permits issued to foreign sailors in Canadian waters, and allegedly taking work from domestic seamen.

As of press time, the SIU had not yet officially come out supporting another viable party — though its president, James Given, indicated they would be looking closely at the NDP.

Three’s company?

Though federal campaign finance laws restrict trade unions and corporations from making direct political contributions, they are allowed to donate to third-party grassroots groups – such as the left-leaning Engage Canada (for which Unifor is a contributor) and conservative-friendly Working Canadians.

The latter was established about a year-and-a-half ago on the notion that unions have too much influence on government, said its spokesperson Catherine Swift, ex-Canadian Federation of Independent Business exec and former C.D. Howe Institute board member.

"There’s no question the unions have ramped up their participation in elections. In Ontario it’s been very notable for a number of years now and of course Ontario has the loosest rules — it’s basically the wild west. Third-parties can spend like drunken sailors, there’s no limit to anything," Swift said.

Among the small business and corporate contributors to Working Canadians, Swift also counts union members on the roster. Partisanship aside, she said mandatory dues paid to unions shouldn’t be spent on politicking.

"We’re doing what we can, nobody is forced to pay anything to us, we always have voluntary dues and I’ve always thought that was a point of pride," Swift said.

"Mind you, there’s a lot of new organizations that are in-sync and I feel like we need a voice like this."

One short-lived conservative group, HarperPAC, aimed to do just that and level the playing field — before shutting down one week after its inception following a negative response from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office.

Modelled after the U.S.-style political action committees, HarperPAC said it intended to spawn discussion around campaign and pre-writ advertising.

"We have contributed to a new discussion about political financing in a fixed election era that is critical to our democracy," Stephen Taylor, chief spokesperson for HarperPAC, said in a statement.

"We were pleased to drive a very fevered discussion about the place of third-party money in pre-writ political campaigns. We note that this discussion only occurred once a right-wing analog of the left’s PAC-style efforts emerged on the scene."

"Like-minded Conservatives will continue to make sure that NDP, Liberal and union activists are held to account going forward," Taylor said, adding that any contributions received would be returned to the respectful donors.

Electoral reform

Many provinces are following Ottawa and putting limits on third-party spending during elections.

Alberta’s newly elected NDP government banned contributions from unions and corporations in its very first draft of legislation, and the Ontario Liberals have hinted at electoral reform. In Quebec, contributions from corporations and unions are prohibited outright, and individual donations are capped at $100.

Since regulation involving third-parties was introduced in Ontario eight years ago, they have more than tripled — from 11 in 2007 to 35 in 2014, according to data from Elections Canada. Greg Essensa, the province’s chief electoral officer, has called for stricter rules surrounding third-party spending limits and improved compliance.

Last spring’s Ontario election saw trade unions donate a total of $965,316 (to a combination of only the NDP and Liberals) and corporations donated $5,978,954 across a number of eligible political factions, with the highest contribution awarded to the Progressive Conservatives.

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