It was just a photo of two men sitting in a diner but, to some observers, it represented a sea change in Ontario politics.
The picture was of PC incumbent and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton sharing a meal with Patrick Dillon, who served for years as the head of Ontario Working Families — a union supergroup whose attack ads were the bane of the PCs in election campaigns past.
According to McNaughton, Dillon is now supporting his re-election effort.
Former Liberal campaign strategist David Herle called Dillon’s endorsement “astonishing,” and the cherry on top of the PC’s success in courting support from construction unions this campaign.
“There’s just so many implications to this. It’s a political realignment,” said Herle on Tuesday’s Curse of Politics podcast. “There’s obviously a huge public-private sector schism in the union movement now about what they want out of government … I mean, it’s a big deal.”
Under Dillon’s leadership, Working Families was a tangible force in Ontario politics, campaigning against the PCs during multiple election cycles. Its attack ads in 2011 against then-PC leader Tim Hudak were seen as particularly devastating for the Tories.
Now, a decade later, Hudak says there are no hard feelings. He told Queen’s Park Today he is happy to have Dillon support the party he once so fiercely fought against.
“I guess that puts Pat and I on the same side in this election. Just took him a while to get there,” Hudak said yesterday.
“The premier and Minister McNaughton deserve a lot of the credit for the unabashed, unapologetic embrace of the skilled trades as both an economic and social policy imperative.”
Hudak’s assessment was shared by multiple PC insiders, one of whom described Dillon’s endorsement to Queen’s Park Today as a “big coup” for the incumbent party.
“He’s our asshole now,” another Tory joked.
“McNaughton and Ford have completely reshaped the Ontario political landscape. This is the most noteworthy part of it perhaps, but I would look at it as part of the entire private-sector union movement shifting over to the Tories,” the second source added.
“I think people will be very surprised on Thursday at how that vote comes out in droves for the PCs.”
The PCs have drawn endorsements from eight unions heading into tomorrow’s election. Many have cited the cash set aside by the Tories for skilled trades investments, the major projects and construction jobs in the offing, and McNaughton’s outreach as labour minister.
On the flip side, conservative strategist Jenni Byrne says the Dillon endorsement “leaves a very uncomfortable taste” in the mouths of “some movement conservatives” who have been knocking on doors for the PCs for the past 15 years.
“[They were] in the trenches during the 2011 and 2014 campaigns against [the Liberals] and are like, ‘Come on, this guy was part of ensuring we didn’t win two elections and now we are just forgetting about that?’” said Byrne on the Curse of Politics.
Pleased to have Patrick Dillon, former Business Manager and Secretary Treasurer of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, at the Little Beaver today.
— Monte McNaughton (@MonteMcNaughton) May 30, 2022
Working Families was viewed as the main target of the PC’s election finance reform legislation that passed last year, limiting third-party spending. The government has said its goal of the law, which included the notwithstanding clause, was to prevent “American-style spending” by well-funded special interest groups.
It also barred third-party advertisers from “colluding” on their messaging, which appears to have kneecapped Working Families’ modus operandi, as the union group did not register as a third party for this election. Its biggest funders, the teachers’ unions, have run their own smaller anti-PC ad campaigns.
Working Families is still challenging that law in the courts, as well as the PC’s Bill 124.
Queen’s Park Today reached out to Dillon, who is the business manager of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, seeking comment for this story, but did not hear back.