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Erin O'Toole, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, visits Bison Transport during his election campaign tour in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on Aug. 20, 2021.SHANNON VANRAES/Reuters

The Conservative Party says it would force large federally regulated businesses to appoint at least one worker representative to their boards of directors – a nod to European-style labour policy aimed at garnering votes from unionized workers.

The proposal would apply to companies with more than 1,000 workers or $100-million in annual revenue. It would affect “well over 100 corporations” in industries ranging from airlines to banking to oil and gas, according to a Conservative Party document on the proposal.

“We’re going to make sure that [workers are] part of decisions on rolling out infrastructure, standing up for fair trade rules, making sure that we support manufacturing and our resource sector,” Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole said at a Monday news conference.

The model of worker representation on company boards or supervisory committees is largely a European phenomenon, with Germany as the leading example. The idea is to promote consensus between labour unions and owners to the benefit of both the employer and employees.

Proponents point to the success of Germany’s manufacturing industry in recent decades. German automakers were widely seen as having navigated the 2008 financial crisis better than their North American counterparts, in part because unions and employers worked together to preserve jobs, even at the cost of wages.

The proposal is part of a shift in the Conservative Party’s approach to labour issues. The party platform, published last week, is filled with pro-worker and anti-big-business language.

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“This is a recognition that the party actually has to expand its voter coalition to win,” said Dennis Matthews, president of advertising agency Creative Currency, and former advertising adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper.

“It’s not enough to just knock [Liberal Leader Justin] Trudeau off his game. They’ve got to add voters to the pool. ... Working-class voters are an important piece of winning Conservative coalitions in the 2020s – Boris Johnson in the U.K. being such a great example of that.”

So far, union leaders have been skeptical about the Conservative proposal and the party’s shift in tone. Unifor national president Jerry Dias said introducing German-style labour representation on boards without adding other aspects of the European industrial system makes little sense.

“If you’re serious about workers’ rights, you’re serious about empowering workers that are locked to the gig economy ... then you’ve got to put in the rest of the pieces. We’ve got to talk about industry bargaining, sectoral bargaining, all of those things are in the European system. So if you negotiate these wage increases for grocery store workers in Germany, all grocery store workers get it,” Mr. Dias said.

Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske echoed Mr. Dias.

“Any time that a worker’s voice can be raised at that type of a table, we would welcome it,” she said.

“But I question how realistic it is to put one worker rep on [a board] without any parameters. Would that worker rep have an actual equal voice, as compared to the other directors sitting around that table? Would they have equal access to financial [information], to company policies, to all of those things that are important for workers?”

In response to a request for comment, Liberal Party spokesperson Brook Simpson said in a statement: “Erin O’Toole and the Conservative Party have no credibility when it comes to protecting workers’ rights and organized labour. In Parliament, they opposed extensions of the wage subsidy that protected Canadians’ jobs and livelihoods.” The NDP did not respond to a request for comment.

The proposal might appear unusual coming from a party that has typically taken a more antagonistic stand toward unions. But Rafael Gomez, professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, said labour representation on boards is historically a conservative idea, aimed at reducing industrial strife and fending off government regulation.

“If labour and management can fix the problems together, then we’ll have less government regulation. Government regulation steps into the vacuum left by lack of worker representation. ... In Germany, that’s still the model. Because business and unions hash it out, there’s very thin labour laws compared to our statutory laws,” Dr. Gomez said.

Canada has not had serious policy discussions along these lines since the early 1980s, Dr. Gomez said. But economic currents have shifted the political discourse.

“There’s a lot more sensitivity to worker’s issues, a lot more support for things like minimum-wage increases ... because of the erosion, actually, of unions. They’re not there in the private sector any more, largely. They’re a public-sector phenomenon. So you have the vacuum. ... And into that vacuum, ideas like this can emerge,” Dr. Gomez said.

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