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Conservatives launch new attack on unions
with 'grossly unfair' public disclosure bill

CWA Canada is calling on members to help fight passage through Parliament of a private member's bill that would introduce onerous reporting rules for unions that are not required of other dues-deducting organizations.

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) says Bill C-377 in its current form would be the "most costly and discriminatory bill faced by the labour movement" in this country.

Every labour organization and all unions, including locals, branches, councils, lodges, etc., would have to disclose detailed financial information, salaries, supplier contracts, loans, accounts receivables, investments, spending on organizing, collective bargaining, education, training, lobbying and all political activities. The information would be made public on a Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) website.

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Legislation would apply to all national, international and regional unions, components and locals, along with federations of labour and labour councils — approximately 25,000 organizations.

Required disclosures include:

Transactions over $5,000 for supplies and services: Name, address of payer/payee; purpose and detailed description of transaction and specific amount paid. Competitors can access details of contracts for every business or professional who does work for a union, providing the opportunity to undermine them.

All disbursements to employees: Everyone from receptionist to president has names, salaries and benefits published. (Prime Minister's Office will not disclose same, citing invasion of privacy.)

Specific details of any invoice from a legal firm over $5,000. This is a gross violation of solicitor-client privilege. No one should be required to disclose to the government and the public the details of their relationship with their legal counsel.

Unions that operate trusteed pension and health plans would have to disclose details of all pension and health related expenditures over $5,000, which violates individual privacy rights.

"This bill is grossly unfair and hypocritical," says CWA Canada Director Martin O'Hanlon. "It's just plain wrong to single out labour groups for special scrutiny, especially when even taxpayer-funded MPs don't disclose full details of their spending.

"This is nothing but yet another ideological Conservative attack on unions that comes right out of the Republican party playbook in the United States. No fair-minded Canadian should stand for this, regardless of what party they support."

The CLC points out the bill is backed by such anti-union groups as the Fraser Institute, the Merit Shop Contractors and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business because they would have access to detailed information about everything a union spends money on and allow them to assess a union's strength. The information, provided at taxpayer and union expense, can be used to threaten collective bargaining rights and organizing drives.

CWA Canada is urging its members to contact their MPs as soon as possible to let the government know that it's wrong to single out labour groups for such scrutiny. The bill is currently at an early stage of proceedings in the House, with debate scheduled for today, March 13. A vote would likely occur next week; if passed, it would be referred to the Finance Committee for consideration and potentially public hearings.

The bill's sponsor, Conservative MP Russ Hiebert, conforms to his party's now standard practise of introducing legislation to deal with non-existent problems. A slick website that has been created in support of the bill (almost certainly at taxpayer expense) contains misleading and incorrect information, which the MP apparently hopes will be believed if it's repeated often enough.

Although he acknowledges that unions already disclose financial information to their members in accordance with their own bylaws and provincial regulations, he seeks public disclosure because of "tax benefits these institutions receive" which he has pegged at $400 million a year.

There is not a shred of truth to that claim: Unions do not receive any public subsidy. It is workers and their families, not unions, who receive an income tax deduction related to their dues. The tax treatment of these workers is exactly the same as that for dues-paying members of the law societies, medical associations or employers who belong to industry associations.

Opposition House leader Joe Comartin called the proposed legislation "a frontal attack on the labour movement" when the bill was given second reading in February. The NDP MP said it would, in fact, threaten rights to privacy, association and freedom of speech.

The strategy behind similar, but less onerous, legislation in the U.S. was that "every dollar spent on disclosure and reporting" was a dollar not spent on other union activities, said Comartin.

While the website dismisses as negligible the expense to unions to assemble and report such information, the CLC estimates it would take the average local union — most of which are run by volunteers — 200 to 400 hours annually at a significant cost to their treasuries. Some estimates say it would add 20 per cent to the current costs, and for some of the pension funds, it would require them to file returns "the size of a large city's phone book."

Hiebert also glosses over the cost to taxpayers, which will amount to millions of dollars to create a massive database, related materials and hundreds of CRA staff to administer it all.