TORONTO - Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak did a serious about-face Friday, announcing he would not campaign on making Ontario a so-called right-to-work province, but political opponents and union leaders were skeptical.
The issue of making union membership and payment of dues optional caused public rifts with Tory candidates and internal dissent within Hudak's caucus, as many feared the anti-labour policy could cost the party the next election.
"Only 15 per cent of the private sector is unionized (so) this right-to-work issue just doesn't have the scope of power to fix the issues for the 100 per cent of manufacturing jobs threatened in Ontario," Hudak said in a speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
"If we're elected, we're not going to do it. We won't touch the Rand formula."
The Rand formula requires all employees in a unionized workplace to pay dues, even if they don't join the union.
Right-to-work still has merit, but isn't widely supported, admitted Hudak.
"The arguments make sense. Why should anybody be forced to join a union that they don't support," he asked the business audience. "When I talk to employers, to workers, some of them tell me that they do want right-to-work laws in Ontario, but not very many."
The people Hudak regularly lambasts as "union elites" said Hudak was still anti-labour and his promise can't be believed.
"Never trust a smiling fox," said Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan. "Hudak has changed his spin, but not his agenda. He remains committed to implementing a low-wage economy in Ontario and he still sees workers' rights as an obstacle to that plan."
The Ontario Public Sector Employees Union was equally skeptical.
"I thought he might have to back down given early on the divisions within his party, however I don't believe for one minute that Hudak is going to give up his fight against organized labour," said OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas. "They will come back at us another way."
"Hudak has removed the centrepiece of his backward policies, but he still intends to turn the clock back on labour legislation," added Jerry Dias of Unifor, which was created by the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union.
The Liberals warned that Hudak's backpedalling could not be trusted, and immediately returned to the familiar accusations of a "hidden agenda" if the Tories should form government.
"He has put so much of his time, energy and resources into right-to-work-for-less policy that it's not believable or credible that he would suddenly change his mind," said Liberal MPP Steven Del Duca.
Premier Kathleen Wynne said Hudak abandoned the controversial policy to stem a revolt among Conservatives.
"I don't see this actually as a change of direction," Wynne said in Sudbury. "I think that Tim Hudak has responded to an uproar in his own caucus."
The New Democrats said voters don't know which Tim Hudak to believe, the one who staunchly defended the right-to-work policy or the one who now says it's not the right thing to do.
The controversial policy, which U.S. President Barack Obama famously called "the-right-to-work for less," was a key part of a 2012 Conservative policy discussion paper and was narrowly approved by party delegates at a convention last fall. Veteran Tory John O'Toole was applauded at that convention after he warned that the party could be "screwed" in an election if they campaigned on the policy.
Hudak gave a speech as recently as December on the need for "worker choice," but since then would not use the words "right-to-work" â€” and repeatedly ducked questions on the Rand formula â€” finally admitting Friday that the idea had no traction with voters.
"For every one person, worker or business owner I heard say they like this policy, I literally heard from a hundred who said 'focus on getting hydro rates under control, get taxes down, do something about the skilled trades,'" he said.
The labour leaders also weren't buying Hudak's claim that his change of heart had nothing to do with losing last week's byelection in Niagara Falls to the NDP, when union activists flooded the riding to rally against the Conservatives.
"That's when they began to realize right-to-work was a non-starter," said OPSEU's Thomas.
"He is clearly panicking after finding no support for his polices and a big loss in the Niagara byelection," said Unifor's Dias.
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