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Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes a funding announcement for a new hospital in Windsor, Ont. on Oct. 18.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

In a promotional video posted online, Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton closes his laptop, slips out of his dress shoes and into a pair of work boots. The thin, bespectacled minister trades his jacket and tie for a hard hat and safety vest and strides out of his office in slow motion, as an electric-guitar riff that sounds ripped from a truck ad plays in the background.

The clip, shared on the minister’s Twitter feed, ends with the slogan “Working for Workers,” an echo of the name of the government’s newly proposed Working for Workers Act. The bill, scheduled for debate in the legislature this week, would bring in a number of labour-law changes that favour the underdog, including a guarantee of washroom access for delivery drivers and a ban on non-compete clauses.

Skeptics in opposition with the NDP and the Liberals at Queen’s Park insist Ontarians won’t be taken in by pro-worker tweaks from a Progressive Conservative government that, after taking power in 2018, almost immediately cancelled moves by its Liberal predecessors to raise the minimum wage and grant workers paid sick days – the latter a policy it then resisted restoring for months in the middle of a pandemic.

But Mr. McNaughton professes a belief in “rebalancing the scales” for workers. And he has promised even more pro-worker reforms, including changes aimed at the so-called gig economy of Uber drivers and food-delivery people. It’s also part of an explicit appeal to working-class voters expected to be a major prong of the Ford government’s re-election campaign next year.

The new look is an about-face not just for Ontario’s PC Party but also for Mr. McNaughton, who was once a proponent of U.S.-style anti-union “right-to-work” laws. But now, private-sector labour leaders either gush about Mr. McNaughton, who was shuffled into his post in 2019, or are at least reluctant to criticize him harshly. (Public-sector unions remain much less impressed and are fighting the government’s 1-per-cent wage cap legislation for public-sector workers in court.)

“Minister McNaughton is one of the best labour ministers in the history of the Ontario government,” said Joseph Mancinelli, international vice-president of the Labourers’ International Union of North America and its regional manager for Central and Eastern Canada, in an e-mailed statement. Support from LiUNA, whose Local 183 represents 70,000 construction workers in the province, should not be surprising, as the union has long backed Premier Doug Ford, including in the last election campaign.

But one prominent union leader who has co-ordinated attack-ad campaigns against Conservatives for decades also said he likes what he sees. Patrick Dillon, business manager and secretary treasurer of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, said Mr. McNaughton has shown a willingness to listen.

Mr. Dillon, whose Working Families ads have reliably targeted the PCs in past elections, said the Ford government started off on the wrong foot, before Mr. McNaughton came into his current role. In addition to freezing a minimum-wage increase, he said the government heeded calls from big developers to kill off the College of Trades, an arm’s-length regulatory body, while allowing many more apprentices at work sites. (Some unions, including LiUNA, also supported this change.)

Mr. Dillon said Mr. McNaughton has since worked hard to ensure the new regulatory system, now under his ministry’s umbrella, will work for everyone.

“When you have a person that has the ability to learn and has the courage to change, you can’t knock that,” Mr. Dillon said in an interview. “So I give him a lot of credit for coming from where he was to where he’s at.”

However, Mr. Dillon is still clashing with the PC government in court over its use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to bring in restrictions on election advertising that were clearly aimed at Working Families. And he won’t say whether he will launch attack ads on the government before next June’s vote.

Jerry Dias, national president at Unifor, the country’s largest private-sector union, acknowledged he has long been at loggerheads with Conservatives at all levels, but called Mr. Ford a “likable guy.” He said Mr. Ford’s overtures to labour came further in advance of an election than federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s, who made a similar pitch before the recent federal vote. Mr. Dias said Mr. McNaughton’s recent changes are welcome but are still just “low-hanging fruit.” Real tests remain on major issues, he said, such as raising the minimum wage.

Mr. Dias said Mr. Ford’s term started off “terribly,” with the closing of the General Motors plant in Oshawa and a public spat in which the union leader accused the Premier of throwing in the towel. However, Mr. Dias said, in last year’s bargaining with the Big Three U.S. automakers, Mr. Ford made calls that helped the union secure $6-billion in new investments.

“He put up his hand immediately and spoke to Ford, GM and Chrysler. So he understands the transformation,” he said. “He understands the importance of playing, which is different.”

More recently, the NDP accused Mr. Ford of failing to do enough for auto workers after Stellantis, formerly known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, announced it was cutting production at its Windsor minivan plant, costing 1,800 jobs. The Premier said the province and Ottawa planned to invest “hundreds of millions” in the plant to ramp it back up and that he had spoken with the company. But he provided no details.

David Tarrant, a Conservative strategist, lobbyist and communications consultant who is a former senior aide to Mr. Ford, said he believes the Conservative appeal to working people is part of a larger political realignment as the other parties increasingly abandon them for “urban elites.” He also said both Mr. McNaughton and the Premier have been driving the shift but that it took time for Mr. Ford to impose his values on his own party.

“Don’t shortchange how important Doug Ford’s personal belief that working-class people need a better deal is in aiding the change,” Mr. Tarrant said.

With a report from Laura Stone

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