Unions due for a fight with Bill C-377 - Macleans.ca

Unions due for a fight with Bill C-377

Private member’s bills typically go nowhere, but one that would force unions to disclose how they spend money appears to have support


Surrey Now

When the House finance committee met late last week just off Parliament Hill, the room was filled to overflowing. Staff scurried to haul in extra chairs to accommodate the lobbyists and lawyers, union officials and political staffers who were crammed into back corners. That sort of turnout typically signals hearings into a major government initiative that’s going to cost somebody money or change one of Ottawa’s power balances. What made this crowd remarkable was that a mere private member’s bill—the sort of legislation championed by a backbench MP that almost always gets voted down or dies from parliamentary neglect—was on the agenda. In this case, though, Conservative MP Russ Hiebert’s bid to force unions across Canada to publicly disclose nearly everything they spend, including on officials’ salaries and political activities, proved to be a serious draw.

Labelled Bill C-377, Hiebert’s legislation to amend the Income Tax Act has big unions increasingly worried. The Canadian Labour Congress has mounted a full-bore campaign to block it, fearing the proposal is gathering enough high-level Tory support to defy the long odds against a private member’s bill actually becoming law. Having easily passed two votes in the House with solid support from the majority Conservatives, Bill C-377 could come up for a third and final vote before the end of this year. CLC President Ken Georgetti says his union umbrella organization brought about 200 local officials to Ottawa this week to lobby Conservative MPs. Their complaint: Hiebert aims to saddle them with onerous administrative costs for no good reason. “If they are going to use this to make us waste money and time on things that don’t get better wages and working conditions for our members,” Georgetti says, “we’ll take that as a very hostile act.”

But Hiebert, who represents the suburban Vancouver riding of South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale, protests that his proposal is actually pro-union. Its aim, he says, is to boost public confidence in the good work they do negotiating improved health and safety standards and pay for their members. His justification for forcing them to provide a detailed breakdown of just about all spending items over $5,000, which the Canada Revenue Agency would then post on its website for all to see, is that union dues are tax-deductible, meaning unions are supported, by Hiebert’s estimate, to the tune of a $500-million-a-year tax break. “The purpose of the bill,” he says, “is to extend the principle of public disclosure to a group of institutions that enjoy substantial public benefits.”

The bill’s union opponents protest that if the tax deductibility of dues means their finances must be fully transparent, the same should go for professional and business organizations—from lawyers’ and doctors’ groups to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business—whose membership fees are also deductible. In any case, labour law is largely a provincial jurisdiction, and labour codes in most provinces already require unions to disclose financial information to their members. The Canada Labour Code does the same for unions under federal jurisdiction. Hiebert argues, though, that the public, not just the union rank and file, deserve access to that information. As well, he points out that U.S. law requires detailed disclosure, which means the best source of fine-grained financial data on any Canadian unions affiliated with American unions is often the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.

Still, while Hiebert professes to be for transparency, and not against unions, his allies are hardly friends of organized labour. Merit Canada, the national lobby group for the “open shop,” or non-unionized, construction industry, has thrown its support behind Bill C-377. Merit has mounted a campaign under the slogan, “Why is big labour afraid of the light?” According to a publicly disclosed report filed with the federal lobbyists’ registry, Merit’s representatives met on Oct. 23 with Hiebert and Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s powerful chief of staff. Also attending that top-level lobbying session were Alykhan Velshi, Harper’s director of planning, and two senior officials from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s department.

Despite this clear indication of attention from the government’s highest echelons, exactly how the Prime Minister’s Office and the finance department view Hiebert’s initiative remains unknown. Their support would be essential for the bill to ultimately pass into law. Union officials say Harper’s cabinet is split on Hiebert’s bill, and not all Tory backbench MPs are behind it.

But the legislation is enthusiastically supported by a cluster of outspoken, populist Conservative MPs who have a way of making themselves heard. Among these Tory ultras is Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre, who mounted his own campaign to end the requirement that federal-regulated employees in unionized workplaces pay union dues, after the Public Service Alliance of Canada angered him by supporting candidates of the separatist Parti Québécois in the recent Quebec provincial election. Another is Winnipeg MP Shelly Glover, who used last week’s committee session on Hiebert’s bill to highlight how Elections Canada deemed union sponsorship of NDP conventions since 2006 to be illegal donations, forcing the opposition party to pay back nearly $350,000.

The ideologically charged, sharply partisan view of unions presented by Poilievre and Glover, however, might be less important in the end than technical details in Hiebert’s bill. At last week’s finance committee meeting, officials from the Canadian Bar Association warned the bill raises a raft of legal questions. The CBA’s experts said proposed “onerous reporting requirements” might violate privacy laws and Charter of Rights protections of freedom of association and expression. Hiebert said amendments could fix those problems. But as his bill is subjected to intense behind-closed-doors political calculations, in a climate of high-stakes lobbying from both sides, any added questions about whether it is legally sound could be the factor that finally determines the bill’s fate.


Unions due for a fight with Bill C-377

  1. Are all Canadian journos part of union or is it just Maclean’s employees who are unionized? A large % of Canadian public employees belong to unions and I am curious to know if all journos are corrupted when it comes to union issues or is it just Maclean’s writers who have skin in the game when it comes to unions and their demands.

    Curious that Geddes, for instance, does not wonder why unions are so afraid of scrutiny. If unions have nothing to fear, having their accounts public would actually improve their performance.

  2. I think unions might be afraid of having to publish the name and address of the beneficiary of a death benefit -for instance- of one of their members. There are a number of other egregious invasion of privacy issues involved as well. And the Merit Canada boyos might fall under the same legislation and duty to disclose, which might be interesting.
    I thought the article was fairly well balanced, unlike TA’s assessment, in that it suggested that the PMO and the finance department’s view of Bill C-377 is unknown. The PM jumped out of his chair like it was on fire when the vote came to support the bill in the first place; a very uncommon reaction by any PM in a similar circumstance. That they wrote this piece of legislation under the guise of a private members bill speaks volumes about their respect for occasionally opposing opinions.

  3. If this was actually about transparency regarding financial public benefits – whether exemptions, subsidies, tax breaks, etc – then Hiebert and the Tories would extend the bill to all organizations benefiting from public dollars. This includes every business that gets a subsidy, exemption or tax break.

  4. Ironically, the Prime Minister killed the long form census and gun registry because they were too intrusive. This is going to be a massive invasion of privacy and will be challenged under the charter I expect. Hiding a union busting bill in the income tax act is despicable at the very least. If it’s a question of union dues being tax deductible why not just eliminate the deduction? For EVERYONE that takes a similar deduction, including those already mentioned in the article.

  5. We should then post all records of corporations spending over $5000. Imagine the amount of CRA jobs created to do just that. Every single expenditure over $5000 for every business in the country,

    That way they would improve their proformance.

  6. I cannot see what is the problem to disclose if I have to disclose every thing to my wife , I see nothing wrong actually it is about time

  7. “If they are going to use this to make us waste money and time on
    things that don’t get better wages and working conditions for our
    members,” Georgetti says, “we’ll take that as a very hostile act.” I wonder how effective Big Labour spending to support the rioting Students in Quebec were in advancing better wages and working conditions for their members?

    Seems like Georgetti would like everyone to forget that unions have for as long as I remember, spent a good deal of their members dues on social/political activism that had nothing to do with working conditions or wages. If anyone cares to be honest, let’s remember that when a group supporting restrictions on abortion made their cross-Canada tour last summer they were met by protests that were funded by organised labour, including the CAW. I wonder if anyone cares to explain how protesting a caravan of pro-lifers benefited wages and working conditions at the various CAW workplaces?