Ontario Opposition Leader Tim Hudak is retreating from a controversial anti-union proposal, after a seething internal party battle over the legislation erupted into public view.
For a year and a half, Mr. Hudak championed bringing American-style "right-to-work" laws to Ontario, which would ban mandatory union dues. Critics charge such a policy would lead unions to collapse and wages to fall.
Now, in the face of dissent within his own Progressive Conservative party – and in the middle of a crucial by-election in union-friendly Niagara Falls – Mr. Hudak has stopped promoting right-to-work.
Asked Thursday whether he supports the policy, he refused to answer the question directly. He would only say vaguely that he is in favour of "modernizing labour laws," but would not specify what this would entail.
"We've put ideas on the table. We want to hear from Ontarians on what ideas will best create jobs in our province," he said at the legislature. "We've put a number of ideas on the table on how to modernize our labour laws; I think that's part of a comprehensive integrated plan to get people back to work in our province."
While Mr. Hudak left the door open to right-to-work, he framed it as simply a topic for discussion, not a party policy.
Divisions in the party over the matter have existed for months, but became public only recently.
Dave Brister, PC candidate in a Windsor-area riding, took to Twitter with his opposition last month. He also criticized PC labour critic Monte McNaughton. Mr. Hudak stripped Mr. Brister of his nomination that same day.
Earlier this week, the governing Liberals released a clandestine recording of PC MPP John O'Toole warning a party conference in September that the Tories could be "screwed" at the polls if they pushed hard on right-to-work. Mr. O'Toole said he feared public-sector unions, such as those that represent police and firefighters, would gang up on the party.
"This is a sensitive issue that could cost us the election," he said.
The Liberals also dug up video of Bart Maves, PC candidate in Niagara Falls, arguing against right-to-work in the legislature in 1997.
On Thursday, the Toronto Star reported on the draft of a letter by 11 party candidates in Northern Ontario that expressed concerns the policy could hurt PC fortunes in the region, where the labour-friendly NDP is strong. Two party sources confirmed candidates had in fact drafted such a letter, but said it had not been sent to Mr. Hudak. One of the candidates whose name appeared on the missive characterized it as an internal strategic discussion.
Another source acknowledged right-to-work had whipped up controversy at conventions, and that some party members wanted it changed.
Publicly, the party beat a retreat behind Mr. Hudak, saying right-to-work is simply an idea being kicked around, not a concrete pledge.
Mr. Maves, in an interview with The Globe last month, indicated he is not running on right-to-work, but said "we have to explore every idea."
On Thursday, PC finance critic Vic Fedeli took much the same tack. He would not say whether he personally supported right-to-work, only that it is a valid idea to consider.
The party's lone northern MPP, Mr. Fedeli said he had nothing to do with the letter draft.
The argument in the party over the policy, he said, is simply a healthy debate over an important issue.
"It's excited people into a conversation. And whether it's controversial or not, I think that's great," Mr. Fedeli said. "We have all the controversy because we're the only party talking about ideas. Good, bad or indifferent."