This week, a new poll by Abacus Data showed federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre leading in vote intention amongst union members. Poilievre’s polling lead results from frustration with the governing Liberals, the inability of the NDP to offer an alternative and the strategic positioning of Poilievre. This troubling trend speaks to the need for a fighting labour movement outside the confines of parliamentary politics.
Poilievre’s poll numbers
The Conservatives under Poilievre lead all other parties in voting intentions among public and private sector union members. Support for the Conservatives was 36 percent from private sector union members, 34 percent from public sector union members and 40 percent from non-unionized workers.
The same poll showed the Liberal’s support at 34 percent from private sector union members, 26 percent from public sector union members, and 26 percent from non-unionized workers. The NDP’s support was 14 percent amongst private sector union members, 26 percent from public sector union members and 20 from non-unionized workers.
While the Conservatives polled equally strong amongst private sector unions (36 percent) at the end of the 2019 election, it is worth noting that the Liberals polled higher at 37 percent amongst private sector union members. While private sector union member support for the Conservatives collapsed over the last couple of years, Poilievre has recovered that support, while the Liberals and NDP lag well behind.
Perhaps what is most alarming is the level of support for Poilievre’s Conservatives amongst public sector union members. Poilievre has a long record of attacking public services and hard bargaining with public sector unions. As one of Harper’s henchmen, he was a staunch defender of the anti-democratic Bill 377, which sought to force unions into disclosing their financial records, while corporations would not. He has also stated his support for right-to-work laws, a mechanism designed to undermine union power.
So how did Poilievre, a staunch opponent of trade unions, come to lead in the polls amongst trade union members?
Rejecting the status quo
The Conservatives have led in the polls since last May. Poilievre’s support amongst union members reflects broader polling trends, after years of Liberal rule and the failure of the NDP to offer an alternative.
The federal Liberals have been in government since 2015. They were elected to a large majority and re-elected in 2019 and into a minority government in 2021. The Liberals have mastered the art of overpromising and under-delivering. They talked a big game on taking action on climate change and reconciliation, but continued to subsidize fossil corporations and buy pipelines, and gave massive subsidies to corporations like Bombardier. They promised to be different from Harper regarding protecting public services, but continued to roll out ‘public-private partnerships’. When it came to public sector workers, the Liberals drove a hard bargain: they oversaw the disastrous Phoenix pay scandal and used undemocratic back-to-work legislation against postal workers and port workers.
Social movements and the labour movement have at key moments wrenched real reforms from the Liberals – winning the childcare deal, federal paid sick days and a federal minimum wage. But some reforms like CERB and the changes to Employment Insurance turned out to be temporary. The federal government is currently going after individuals for CERB overpayments, while at the same time ignoring the widespread abuses by businesses in the 100 billion dollar CEWS program. The recent McKinsey consultancy scandal has only reinforced the belief that federal Liberals are cozy with big business.
Last March, the NDP and Liberals struck a confidence and supply motion where the NDP would prop up the Liberal minority government until 2025 in exchange for piecemeal advance on dental care, pharmacare and other minor reforms. The problem with this deal for the NDP was it achieved very little for workers, while at the same time lashing the NDP to the Liberal’s mast. The NDP would get little credit for any positive reforms but would fully share in the blame and frustration directed at the government.
The deal was about preserving the status quo at a time when the status quo is not delivering for the working class. The NDP had kneecapped its own ability to be an alternative to the governing Liberals, leaving the field wide open for the Poilievre’s Conservatives.
Poilievre is filling a void
While Poilievre has an anti-union history, he has been strategic in how he has positioned himself concerning the Liberals and their relationship with big business. Poilievre was one of the lone voices opposing a gift to big business, the Canadian Economic Wage Subsidy program. He said, “taxpayers should not be shovelling hundreds of millions of dollars into a large corporation, some of which will then flow into the hands of wealthy executives and shareholders.”
Poilievre’s prediction about the wage subsidy abuse by big business predictably turned out to be true. While the NDP later criticized the government’s CEWS program, it at the time voted for it and expressed almost no concern about potential abuses or the fact it was gifting billions of dollars to employers.
Poilievre has also hammered the government over the McKinsey scandal. He has loudly criticized the government for using consultants and its ties to big business. Most significantly, Poilievre has sought to blame the government for inflation. Much of his criticism is baseless – inflation results from pandemic profiteering, war and supply issues. But he has been able to tie the cost of living crisis to the government.
At the same time he is taking people’s economic anxieties and channeling them towards right wing conclusions, whipping up xenophobic and racist attacks against refugees crossing at Roxham Road. Poilievre is seeking to blame migrants for the crisis in public services and use that to pillory the government.
Poilievre is positioning himself as a “friend” of workers. By attacking the government’s tight relationship with big business, blaming refugees and speaking to the cost of living crisis, Poilievre has won over significant support of trade union members.
Take the fight beyond the ballot box
If we simply imagine resistance to Poilievre occurring within the confines of parliament or the electoral arena, the Left is in serious trouble. Waiting for the next election or confronting Poilievre through the prism of the ballot box will only reinforce passivity and further atomize workers.
Taking on Poilievre means we cannot defend the status quo. Only an active resistance to the Conservatives and the big business agenda can alter the political terrain.
Workers who fight and win feel less isolated and less nihilistic about their future. We can raise expectations and political horizons through collective action. Education workers in Ontario showed an example of how we can alter the political terrain through struggle. If we don’t get the labour movement moving and fighting, workers will turn to the Tories to take their frustrations out on the status quo.
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