Ontario Progressive Conservative candidates eye peace with unions

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Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership candidates are seeking peace with the public sector unions who waged a public relations war against them during last spring’s general election.

When PC leadership candidate Pat Brown launched his campaign, he invited union representatives for the police, nurses and teachers to speak.

Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA) president Jim Christie launched devastating attack ads against the party in last year’s election campaign, as did the unions representing teachers and nurses.

“There would be no contradiction in being a proud Progressive Conservative and a proud supporter of professional associations whether it’s police officers, teachers, nurses,” said Brown, the Conservative MP for Barrie. ”I had one MPP tell me, ‘How can you go around with Jim Christie?’

“When the Conservatives were elected in 1995 and 1999, or when Stephen Harper was elected, he had guys like Jim Christie, the police union, supporting their candidacy.”

Other leadership candidates are also reaching out to the leaders of public sector unions and associations.

“I think we’ve taken a confrontational approach but under my leadership as premier, you’re going to see a different Progressive Conservative Party,” PC MPP Vic Fedeli said on a leadership campaign swing through northern Ontario this past week. “After the election loss, my first meeting was with Pat Dillon of Working Families.”

Working Families is a union-funded group that has targeted the past three PC leaders with pricey advertising campaigns, so pointed at Tories that the party tried unsuccessfully to argue in court that it’s a front for Liberals.

Leadership candidate Lisa MacLeod said supporters of the party have told her they want it to remain true to its fiscal conservative roots.

“But I think that there is a sense in our party that perhaps there is a different way and a better approach for us to take with public sector unions,” MacLeod said.

The Ottawa MPP said she met with the OPPA and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) shortly after the last election.

“They were unions that we had good working relationships with in the past that decided to run attack ads against us in the last election,” MacLeod said. “There needs to be better approach — everyone in the party right now is trying to signal that.”

So new year, new leader, new Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

As the months count down to a leadership vote in May, most of the confirmed candidates are promising supporters a new relationship with public sector workers, particularly those that have been natural allies in the past — like the police.

During last year’s election campaign under former leader Tim Hudak, the party vowed to reduce the size of the public sector workforce by 100,000 positions as the provincial debt approached the $300-billion mark.

Hudak had earlier proposed giving unionized workers the right to voluntarily opt out of paying dues, and although he abandoned the right-to-work policies before the campaign start, union leaders were already in the mood for a fight.

Most of the unions and associations settled on Premier Kathleen Wynne’s side like a guard dog throughout the election campaign, snapping at anything Tory blue.

One leadership candidate was not hitting a particularly conciliatory note.

“We have one Liberal Party in Ontario; we don’t need a second one,” MPP Monte McNaughton said when asked about the party’s relationship with public sector unions. “With a $12.5-billion deficit in the province, we do need a premier that’s actually going to say ‘no.’

“We need to have a leader and a premier that’s going to be respectful of everyone in the province but we have to have a Conservative leader that is going to do what’s in the best interest of taxpayers,” he said.

Major public sector groups are renegotiating their contracts this year — teachers, OPP, government staff.

MacLeod said there is a need for smaller and more efficient government, but that requires working with partners in the public sector unions.

The legislated wage freeze brought in for some teachers by the Liberals under former premier Dalton McGuinty proved to be “quite difficult,” she said.

The PCs, with Hudak at the helm, had proposed a legislated two-year broader sector wage freeze.

The key to resolving the current conflict between public sector asks and taxpayers’ ability to pay is to keep talking with unions and to grow the private-sector economy, Fedeli said.

“You’ve got to put people back to work in the private sector and that creates the demand for the public sector,” Fedeli said.

Brown said he believes unions can help the government save money, noting police have advised him to invest more in mental health services to cut officer hours on calls, and nurses have suggested more long-term care to free up hospital beds.

Christine Elliott, the MPP for Whitby, is also seeking the leadership of the party.

Would-be PC leaders have until the end of January to official register as candidates.