During the 2019 provincial election UCP leader Jason Kenney rambled about Alberta in a big blue pickup truck for all the world like a toiler in the oil fields. The new premier likes to present himself as one of the boys. Whether he succeeds or not, it worked electorally. He led his partly to a solid win with an impressive 55 percent of the popular vote. 

Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford also presents himself as just plain folks, taking pains to distant himself from the “elites.” It didn’t do him any harm electorally either. His Conservatives won the 2018 election with 72 out of 124 seats. 

Federal Conservative leader Erin O’toole has gone much further to present himself as friend of the working man. For instance, he laments the decline of private sector union membership saying, “This was an essential part of the balance between what was good for business and what was good for employees. Today, that balance is dangerously disappearing. Too much power is in the hands of corporate and financial elites.” Strutting his working class sympathies he insists, “Conservatives are here to fight for those who build things in Canada, those who get their hands dirty and take pride in doing a job well before they come home for the night.” Whether this new-found fondness for organized labour will lead the federal Conservatives to victory remains to be seen.

These promises of solidarity with the working class are, however, not reflective of conservative practice.

In Alberta, an NDP government had brought labour legislation into the 21st century after 44 years of Conservative neglect. When Mr. Kenney and the UCP gained power they immediately set it back again.

The UCP was echoing what had previously taken place in Ontario. The Liberals had brought in legislation that made access to collective bargaining easier and improved working conditions for precariat workers. Once elected, Ford’s Conservatives proceeded to gut the legislation.

O’Toole’s record is hardly better. When he served in Harper’s government he voted for anti-labour bills that, among other things, made it easier to decertify unions. When he ran for leader of the party, he referred to Jerry Dias (president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union) as one of the “fat cat union leaders.”

Conservative leaders may have high regard for the working class and their interests, but they clearly believe those interests must be subservient to those of their employers. Perhaps O’Toole is opening a new chapter. But if he is to rise above the prejudices of his provincial counterparts, and those he himself has shown in the past, he must recognize the seriousness of growing inequality. He must promote easier access to collective bargaining and propose legislation that will give the precariat a fair share of the economy. If his promising words don’t translate into meaningful action, they will begin to sound a tad hypocritical.

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