LONDON, ONT. - As Andrea Horwath alighted from her bright orange campaign bus, a rain-soaked aide offered his umbrella and guided her to three local NDP candidates huddling in the downpour outside a local hospital.
Cue the photo-op: Horwath vowed her New Democrats would fight for seniors in need of home care. As premier, she’d proclaim a “five-day home care guarantee” to eliminate waiting lists by allocating more money to the system.
It’s a practiced pitch. But it sounds off-key to the union whose members actually provide home care across Ontario.
The SEIU (Service Employees International Union) has long campaigned to improve the wages and working conditions of Personal Support Workers (PSWs) earning a meagre $12.50 an hour. After years of hard slogging, the SEIU celebrated victory when the May 2 Liberal budget allocated funding for a $4 hourly increase over the next two years.
The union thought it had won the day. The next day, it lost everything.
Ignoring personal pleas from SEIU president Sharleen Stewart, Horwath plunged the province into an election whose outcome still cannot be predicted. The only certainty is that the union’s long-sought wage increase is no longer certain for its 13,000 PSWs.
The SEIU contacted me the other day to ask if it was true that Tim Hudak would cancel the budgeted wage increase if his Tories triumphed in the election. Most media coverage has focused on the PC platform promise to eliminate 100,000 jobs in the public sector, but the bad news for the SEIU is tucked away in a footnote to a financial table in a background annex, which reads:
“Not proceeding with new Liberal health-sector budget promises . . . . Not proceeding with special wage increases for PSWs.”
The SEIU president told me she was less surprised by Hudak’s decision than by Horwath’s refusal to pass the budget, which would have entrenched the increases. By opening the door to a possible Hudak victory, the NDP placed the SEIU’s hard-won gains at risk.
“I shared my disappointment with her,” Stewart said in an interview, barely concealing her anger. “I encouraged her to accept that budget. She knows that I was disappointed. I told her firsthand that this was . . . the best social justice budget that we’ve seen in decades.”
Another puzzle: One of Horwath’s newest advisers, Eoin Callan, came to the NDP after working for the SEIU’s team, where his job was to advocate for those PSW wage increases.
Just prior to becoming Horwath’s director of policy and communications this year, Callan held a similar title as head of policy for the SEIU. In his union job, he pushed the Liberal government to increase wages for the SEIU’s poorly paid members.
But the bargaining didn’t always go smoothly. When negotiations bogged down, senior Liberal officials complained to the SEIU’s top leadership that Callan was getting in the way of a settlement by clinging doggedly to demands for greater control over PSWs across the province. Stewart later stepped in, and the two sides reached the final deal that had long eluded them.
Shortly after he was sidelined, Callan joined the NDP — and Horwath subsequently dashed the hopes of the union he’d once served. Callan declined to be quoted for this column. Horwath’s staff said she was unavailable for an interview.
With 57,000 members in Ontario, the SEIU aspires to be more politically influential, echoing the activism of its North American parent union that helped Barack Obama’s campaigns. Now, still seething at the NDP, the SEIU is throwing more resources behind the Liberal campaign to keep Hudak out at all costs.
“There’s unprecedented strategic planning going on right now with labour,” Stewart told me.
She’s not alone in her frustrations — or fears that the NDP may have paved the way for a Tory victory that would undo other budget gains: Labour leaders have cited promised increases for child-care workers, annual minimum wage hikes, and a new Ontario Retirement Pension Plan.
Why did Horwath ignore pleas from the SEIU and so many other unions? Were the potential gains for the NDP worth the risks?
Only her trusted advisers know for sure.
Either way, the province’s low-paid PSWs have learned a hard lesson: There are no guarantees in politics — unless you believe Horwath’s magical promise of a five-day home-care guarantee for seniors.