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January 2, 1999
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Labour asks, are Liberals our best hope?

Unions debate whether to abandon NDP in effort to defeat Harris

By Caroline Mallan
Toronto Star Queen's Park Bureau

DAN HOLMAN didn't like the recent glimpse he received of health care in his native Windsor.

A cut above the eye during a hockey game landed him in his local emergency ward, where he was left waiting for almost two hours before being stitched up.

Holman said he didn't really mind waiting; what bothered him was seeing all the young children waiting in their parents arms to be seen to.

``I'm one thing, I can sit there for a couple of hours, but I don't like to see the kids left waiting,'' said the 38-year-old welder at the Ford Motor Co.

Holman said health care - not tax cuts, not less red tape, not high-speed chases - is his issue as an Ontario voter.

And despite his union's traditional affiliation with the New Democratic Party, Holman will vote Liberal in the next provincial election, which is widely expected to be called this spring as Premier Mike Harris' Progressive Conservatives approach their fourth anniversary in office.

Holman will cast his Liberal vote with the support of his union, the Canadian Auto Workers, which is the province's largest private-sector union with some 130,000 members.

The CAW decided in early December to recommend its members vote strategically in the next election.

The premise is simple: the union is encouraging its members to vote for whoever is most likely to defeat the Tory candidate in their riding.

Holman, a former NDP supporter, will be aggressively supporting incumbent Liberal MPP Sandra Pupatello in the riding of Windsor-Sandwich.

Pupatello has been a tireless defender of health care in Windsor. She has repeatedly berated the government over cuts to emergency wards in her city and has brought busloads of local residents on the four-hour trek along Highway 401 to Queen's Park in order to reinforce her point.

Holman admires her drive and said she identifies with his Number 1 issue. He said the idea of strategic voting, while drawing a lot of attention from political and union insiders, ultimately will not dictate how the average worker on the line will vote.

``Some follow the union but I would say the majority don't,'' he said of the mood in the plant. ``The union can only do so much, but I think the employees vote for what they believe and what they are comfortable with.''

Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty has been wooing union members during the past few months with assurances that he is the best one to unseat Harris and bring sides together.

``I have been making a real effort to reach out to all sectors in Ontario, from Bay Street, right through to labour and making it clear that I am the only leader who is prepared to work with everybody,'' McGuinty said in a recent interview. ``People of Ontario should understand that a vote for the NDP is in a real sense a vote for Mike Harris.''

McGuinty said unions should be aware that the Tories want the NDP to get their vote.

``I am encouraging people to understand that . . . Mike Harris is counting on people to vote NDP - that's absolutely essential for him to come up the middle again,'' McGuinty said.

But NDP Leader Howard Hampton says McGuinty is underestimating NDP support.

He said that in about 60 ridings across Ontario, even if union members decide to vote strategically, it will be the New Democrat who will be the most likely to defeat incumbent Tories. Under redistribution, there will be 103 seats province wide in the next election, down from 133.

``The fact of the matter is that in at least 60 of the ridings in Ontario . . . we are the best bet to defeat Conservative candidates.''

Hampton also concedes that union leadership can only do so much. While his party will benefit greatly from the financial boost of unions and their ability to organize, how members vote is not a given.

``I don't think it's ever been the case that the head of an association or a federation or a union can really direct their members how to vote,'' he said.

On the Tory side of things, talk was running high at the party's convention in Ottawa in October that union foes would mount an aggressive anti-Harris campaign, spending as much as $10 million to defeat the Tories in what was predicted to be ``trench warfare.''

To date, far less has been pledged, but that total could rise as teachers' unions and nurses start spending and planning to vote strategically. The CAW also continues to sponsor billboards in downtown Toronto denouncing government policies.

Despite the plans for strategic voting, it would be a stretch to say that New Democrats in Ontario have been abandoned by organized labour.

The Ontario Federation of Labour, the umbrella group for the province's unions, is following tradition and aligning itself with the New Democrats, providing at least $500,000 and other support.

The CAW, under the leadership of Buzz Hargrove, will also offer money - at least $100,000 - and will work to re-elect incumbent New Democrats. But, in ridings where the Liberal is the more likely choice to oust a sitting Tory, that is where the union's money and manpower will go.

``I think we have an obligation to our members and to the broader community to work to get rid of this government any way we can,'' said Hargrove in defence of the move.

Never perceived as being a strong ally of Hampton, Hargrove's view surprises few but upsets some within his own fold.

Bruce Allen is an assembler at the General Motors plant in St. Catharines and a longtime union activist. The idea of a de facto endorsement of the Liberals does not sit well.

``The Liberals' policies are closer to the Tories','' Allen said. ``Do we just want to get rid of Mike Harris or do we want rid of the policies of Mike Harris, too?''

Allen said if his union whole-heartedly supported the New Democrats, they could have a seat at the table of power in the event of a minority Liberal government.

Other unions are also taking the strategic approach. In the public service, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents most Ontario civil servants, will keep an eye on where its members' votes should go.

``What our union has committed to doing is first and foremost supporting the incumbent NDP members and we're doing a riding by riding analysis,'' said President Leah Casselman.

But over at the Canadian Union of Public Employees, or CUPE, which is Ontario's largest union with 180,000 members, support for the NDP is firm and Ontario Division president Sid Ryan says it will remain so.

``The Liberals are not friends of labour by any stretch of the imagination,'' Ryan said.

``As a whole, the party is more in tune with the fiscal conservatism of Mike Harris' revolutionaries than they are with working people.''

CUPE headquarters will spend anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million to boost the NDP, with more support and front-line campaign workers coming at the local level.

That said, CUPE will not pour union money into strong Liberal ridings such as Pupatello's in Windsor - essentially invoking a strategic deployment of resources rather than strategic voting.

And Ryan warned that the New Democrats have a responsibility to rise to the challenge set out by those unions that are voting strategically.

``It's a matter of the NDP going out and finding some really good candidates in key ridings and then getting the support of those unions that are saying strategic voting is the way to go.''

Hampton says he's not worried, that his party will be attracting candidates and voters who are committed to changing the face of government in Ontario.

``A whole lot of people who may not have been politically active in the past are being coming activist in the sense that they don't want the Harris government back and as we head closer to the election they'll be making up their minds about who they do want, I think a great number of those people are in the NDP camp.''

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