Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said Wednesday he would stand by his plan to change Ontario's labour laws to make union dues and membership optional, while the Liberals claimed many Tories oppose the idea.
Hudak no longer uses the words "right-to-work" to describe his plan, but said a Tory government would make labour laws more flexible to try to stem the flow of job losses, especially in the province's once mighty manufacturing sector.
"I'm tired of other countries and states eating our lunch and taking away our manufacturing jobs," said Hudak. "We need to modernize our laws so we can give more opportunity to young people in this province, and to grow businesses."
The Liberals have been holding news conferences to gleefully point out apparent dissension in the Conservative ranks over the right-to-work initiative.
Several Conservative MPPs voted against a 1997 bill that would have made payment of union dues optional, including Bart Maves, who is the Tory candidate in next week's byelection in Niagara Falls, said Liberal backbencher Steven Del Duca.
"Is Niagara Falls PC candidate Bart Maves one of the many PC candidates who oppose the right-to-work-for-less policy?" asked Del Duca. "It's also quite clear that Tim Hudak is going further than [former Conservative premier] Mike Harris ever contemplated doing with his right-to-work-for-less scheme."
Hudak would scrap the so-called Rand formula in labour law, which mandates that all employees in a unionized shop pay dues, even if they don't join the union.
The governing Liberals said Hudak's proposal to make Ontario a so-called right-to-work province is so toxic many Conservatives are afraid it will cost them the next election.
Henry Jacek, political science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the issue is causing real problems for Hudak within Tory ranks.
"There's a lot of internal dissent in the party," said Jacek. "A lot of people are unhappy inside the party about getting rid of the Rand formula, something we've had for over 60 years."
Hudak was recently forced to fire the PC candidate in the Windsor riding of Essex, Dave Brister, after he came out against right-to-work.
The Tories said Brister was dropped after he openly attacked PC labour critic Monte McNaughton on Twitter for supporting labour law changes.
"As I told you last year @montemcnaughton I support @timhudak but I don't endorse your Labour Critic support for 'right to work' legislation," Brister tweeted Jan. 21.
McNaughton said Wednesday that the Conservatives were "not at all" backing away from right-to-work, which critics say has resulted in lower wages in the many U.S. states where it has been adopted.
"Our policy is about giving workers a choice of whether or not they join a union," said McNaughton. "No one in Ontario in 2014 should be forced by law to join a union in order to get a job."
The Liberals also released a leaked audio tape from a PC policy convention last fall in which veteran Tory John O'Toole was applauded by delegates when he warned the party could be "screwed" in the expected spring election by "right-to-work" policies.
The Tories, meanwhile, produced a radio ad Wednesday for the Feb. 13 by-election in Niagara Falls, attacking New Democrat candidate Wayne Gates for saying he wants to see his former union, the Canadian Auto Workers, "take over" the NDP.
The NDP called it an act of desperation and distraction.
"Instead of talking about right-to-work, Hudak is desperately flailing and sinking to new lows with ugly politics that are meant to distract from the fact he has a policy his team won't back," said NDP labour critic Taras Natyshak.
The New Democrats released a television ad for Niagara Falls that attacks Hudak and the Conservatives for "sitting on the sidelines" but makes no mention of the Liberals.
The ads are a sign the Tories and New Democrats feel they are each other's real competition in Niagara Falls, even though Liberal Kim Craitor held the riding for the past decade.
Hudak held his news conference Wednesday in Thornhill, the site of next week's other byelection, where the Conservatives are fighting hard to hold on to the seat against a strong Liberal challenge.