By Claude Gravelle
Just before the Christmas break in Parliament, the Conservative government steamrolled a private member’s bill through to the Senate that claimed to deliver financial accountability for labour organizations.
In fact, C-377, as it is known by its bill number, has everything to do with politics and nothing else.
Through rather bizarre federal tax amendments, the Conservatives figured they could mandate greater public disclosure of details of the financial operations of labour unions and limit political and lobbying activities.
Don’t take my word for it.
A wide range of groups beyond labour, including the business sector and the eminent Canadian Bar Association, have raised these concerns on costs, the constitution, privacy, and jurisdiction.
Don’t get me wrong, either.
I am all for financial accountability and transparency for unions, as we would expect from any organization. I was an active member of Steelworkers Local 6500 for 25 years, including serving as steward, a safety and health committee member and special projects co-ordinator.
Regularly, I saw decisions made in an open and democratic way, providing transparency to their members.
Financial statements were open to all members, budgets voted upon, financial reports distributed to the membership on an annual basis. There was no issue nor perceived problem that demanded a C-377, because the business of the union was there for us to see.
There are plenty of concerns over the proposed law.
Any transaction greater than $5,000 must be disclosed. Many pension and benefit payments exceed this amount, including death, life and health benefits. Sensitive medical and financial information risks being disclosed.
Reports would include details about spending on a range of activities including union organizing, collective bargaining, education and training, and political action, all of which would be made available online on the Canada Revenue Agency website.
When and if passed by the Senate (very likely) and receiving royal assent, the bill would require labour organizations to disclose disbursements that go beyond any normal statement that needs to be expressed publicly.
Some experts believe the requirements that unions disclose political activities, lobbying activities, organizing activities and collective bargaining activities are counter to the Charter’s protection of freedom of expression and association.
We find ourselves in a recession with a slow recovery. There would be significant compliance costs for unions. It is also estimated that the cost to government to set up the infrastructure to support this law could run into the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.
Imagine what it will take to comb through detailed statements of the estimated 25,000 labour organizations in Canada.
C377 treads on provincial jurisdiction, too. For example, most pensions funds are already subject to significant public disclosure under provincial labour and pension legislation, not to mention existing Income Tax Act provisions.
It is frustrating to see the Conservatives choosing conflict over collaboration with the unions. They ignore the valid and valuable role our unions play in our local economy and community as well as across Canada.
I believe C-377 will be challenged in the courts and most likely struck down on constitutional grounds. This will happen after the government chose to ignore warnings about this happening.
The Canadian taxpayer will pick up this tab.
At a time of supposed restraint, why target one sector of the public?
The answer is clear to me. Politics.
Claude Gravelle (NDP) is the MP for Nickel Belt.