With next year’s provincial election top of mind among speakers throughout the recent convention of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne was accorded two standing ovations from convention delegates while the leader who sits atop the polls, Patrick Brown of the Progressive Conservatives, was not in attendance.
During the Niagara Falls conference, Building Trades business manager Patrick Dillon listed a handful of policies where the premier had shown leadership including Canada Pension Plan improvements, the minimum wage hike, labour law reform, apprenticeship training and the guaranteed income pilot project. He told delegates, "I just want to say, from my view, you have been doing a terrific job."
Dillon said in an interview the Conservatives were invited to send a speaker but declined.
"We have the premier here. The track record with the present government has been fairly positive," he said.
"And we have heard from Andrea (New Democratic Party Leadern Andrea Horwath, also a speaker at the conference), they want the partnership to move forward to build the kind of Ontario we want to live in.
"Patrick Brown, and it is a bad indicator, he was at the convention last year, and now that it is getting closer to the election, they were given months and months of notice. He was invited to this convention but chose not to come, saying there was a conflict with his schedule."
The party’s labour critic was also said to be unavailable, Dillon noted.
"Maybe it is a scheduling conflict, but it is not a good signal that they chose not to be here," he said.
In her address, Wynne noted that changes to OSAP funding her government had instituted meant 210,000 postsecondary students are now getting free tuition and then turned to support for skilled trades training.
"We are continuing to support more young people entering skilled trades and encouraging diversity inclusion, I know that is something you are encouraging as well," said the premier, whose party currently ranks second in most polls behind Brown’s Conservatives.
"We want to work with leaders like you to make skills training and apprenticeships even better and accessible. There is a lot we can learn from the construction trades on mentorship, on completion rates and a host of other issues."
Wynne addressed threats to NAFTA emerging from the U.S. administration under President Donald Trump, saying global changes are creating growing uncertainties.
Regarding NAFTA, Wynne said, "It is like reading bizarre tea leaves to try to figure out what is going on."
Wynne pointed to local infrastructure projects the government has funded and said, "We are making historic investments in infrastructure and with those historic investments we know there will be a lot of great opportunities for skilled trades in the years ahead. We need you to work with us on that."
Horwath said her party is a steady ally of the Building Trades coalition.
"We can build an even better Ontario where hardworking people can count on paycheques and benefits and pensions," she said.
Ontarians will hesitate to vote for the Conservatives, she predicted, because they will remember the last time they took power and laid off nurses, shut down hospitals, privatized Highway 407 and started the process of privatizing hydro.
Two speakers from the national labour scene remarked on the importance of next year’s election as a possible watershed for organized labour.
Bob Blakely, Canadian operating officer of Canada’s Building Trades Unions, said, "The Ontario election will be huge for us."
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, commented, "I am worried about the Ontario election.
"We saw what Mike Harris did to the province when he came into office. We can’t allow a new government to come in and tell us we are going to go back. We are not going back."
Dillon said the Conservatives had approached him for support for their campaign.
"Their whole agenda was all about negative stuff about Kathleen Wynne," said Dillon. "I said, I cannot consider making a contribution to a political party when I don’t know where they stand on any issue, other than opposing everything Kathleen Wynne said or did.
"That is not how you get elected as a premier of the province of Ontario."