Organized Labour, Campaign Finance, and the Politics of Strategic Voting in Ontario

By Savage, Larry; Ruhloff-Queiruga, Nick | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Organized Labour, Campaign Finance, and the Politics of Strategic Voting in Ontario


Savage, Larry, Ruhloff-Queiruga, Nick, Labour/Le Travail


IN THE LAST TWENTY YEARS, unions in Ontario have become increasingly active in electoral politics. The nature of that electoral activity, however, has shifted in significant ways over the course of the last six provincial elections. For example, during the 1995 Ontario provincial election campaign, 96 per cent of all union contributions to political parties, candidates, and riding associations went to the New Democratic Party (NDP), organized labour's traditional electoral vehicle. By 2003, however, the Ontario Liberal Party had eclipsed the provincial NDP as the primary recipient of union campaign contributions. In the three election campaigns that followed, unions donated unprecedented amounts to both the NDP and the Liberals as unions increasingly embraced multi-partisan strategic voting tactics in an effort to block the election of anti-union Progressive Conservative (PC) candidates.

This article is concerned with explaining the changing landscape of union approaches to electoral politics and party-union relations in Ontario. It is clear that a growing number of unions have abandoned exclusive electoral alliances with the social democratic NDP in the context of growing union support for strategic voting. We demonstrate this trend through an analysis of campaign finance data coupled with secondary literature on unions and electoral politics. Specifically, we argue that unions' increased level of participation in Ontario election campaigns has been driven primarily by a focus on electoral harm reduction in the form of anti-Conservative, multi-party strategic voting. Nowhere is the shift towards strategic multi-partisanship more evident than in the realm of campaign finance. While strategic political spending and strategic voting campaigns are two different things, they are also inextricably linked in terms of unions' overall electoral strategies. Union campaign contributions in Ontario provincial elections have increasingly been deployed tactically in an effort to support strategic voting campaigns designed to block the election of PC candidates.

Union campaign contribution data used in this article was retrieved from Elections Ontario. The authors manually calculated totals by combining campaign finance data during election periods using three separate collections of financial statements for each election campaign dating back to 1995: CR-1 Candidate Campaign; CR-3 Constituency Association; and CR-4 Political Party. (1) After extracting relevant data from each individual constituency association and candidate campaign statement, we combined that data with the total direct union contributions to political parties in order to uncover the clearest possible picture of union political financing activity during campaign periods, recognizing that money flows not just to central party coffers, but also to local candidates and constituency associations. We also relied on TPAR-1 financial statements, which document third-party campaign spending (available since the 2007 provincial election), in order to demonstrate how unions have exploited other avenues for influencing election outcomes. We begin our analysis with the 1995 provincial election, which saw the Harris Conservatives sweep the NDP from power. This was a watershed election for the labour movement in terms of political strategy because it set the stage for strategic voting to emerge as the dominant electoral tactic employed by unions in each successive campaign. We focus exclusively on campaign periods in order to capture how unions engage with parties and individual candidates during these intense electoral events when the stakes are highest and political interest is at its peak.

Dubbed the "Wild West of fundraising" by Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn, (2) Ontario's campaign finance rules came under intense fire in 2016 after Cohn exposed fundraising schemes and loopholes that, while completely legal, cast doubt on the integrity of the province's political system. …

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