Labour Under Siege

How so-called accountability laws unfairly target unions

by Lisa Johnson

We’ve got conservative governments in Ottawa and Saskatchewan. In a stunning coincidence, the last few years have seen a staggering amount of provincial and federal legislation aimed at undermining union clout.

No, no. Don’t argue. We talked to an expert.

“We’ve seen a coordinated assault on unions; there’s no question about that,” says Charles Smith, professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan’s St. Thomas More College.

To Smith, it’s not sneaky at all. It’s completely transparent.

“It’s interfering with unions in order to weaken unions,” he says.

Provincially, the Saskatchewan Party’s had no trouble speedily passing the omnibus Saskatchewan Employment Act, also known as Bill 85. Labour Minister Don Morgan has promised that the new act will better protect workers, promote growth and increase accountability. Uh huh. How’s that, exactly?

Besides loosening basic rules controlling how employers pay for overtime and schedule work weeks for both unionized and non-unionized workers, Bill 85 also takes dead aim at union pocketbooks. Among other things, it will make audits mandatory, requiring labour organizations to provide audited financial statements to their members.

Is it safe to say that the proposed requirements would hurt organized labour’s collective bargaining efforts?

“Absolutely,” says Smith. “It would add quite a financial burden to a union, which means they won’t have finances to put into the strike fund and different things [necessary] to be an effective union — especially smaller unions and locals.”

A similar federal bill could leave unions on the hook for $1,000 per day in non-compliance fines. Since the federal government can’t mess with the Labour Relations Act (it’s a provincial matter, according to the Constitution), backbench Conservative MP Russ Hiebert introduced a bill to change the Income Tax Act — but only for labour organizations.

Bill C-377 would require labour unions or any group involved in collective bargaining with an employer to provide the Canada Revenue Agency with annual reports detailing every expense over $5,000, and any union salary more than $100,000.

The reports would be published on CRA’s website — all in the name of transparency and accountability.

But it’s obviously just about harassing unions, which big-business-friendly politicians tend to dislike.

“The extent of public disclosure of personal information contemplated in Bill C-377 raises serious privacy concerns,” said Jennifer Stoddart, Canada’s privacy commissioner, when it was tabled last year.

“By requiring such disclosures also be made to the public at large, [this bill] oversteps what is needed to achieve its stated objective,” she added.

By comparison, registered charities in Canada only need to publicly disclose high-level salary information for their 10 highest-compensated positions — but that’s without identifying individuals by name, Stoddart pointed out. The proposed union requirements amount to a “highly disproportionate” intrusion of privacy, she added.

To put the disclosure requirements into perspective, recall that when former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber tried to create new disclosure requirements for government employees earning more than $188,000, his proposed amendment to Canada’s Access to Information and Privacy laws became so watered down in committee that the salary threshold became the highest possible payment for deputy ministers, $441,661 — rendering the legislation practically meaningless.

Rathgeber left the Conservative Party in a huff — all because of his stubborn commitment to transparency and accountability.

Regardless of the salary threshold, when it comes to transparency and accountability from labour organizations, Smith’s response is simple: we already have both.

“If you look at unions, they are democratic organizations for the most part, which suggests that if members want financial information they can go to meetings, see it, and if they don’t like it they can run for executive positions,” says Smith.

“So why then does the government feel the need to interfere with labour unions to force executives to reveal financial information? Are we facing a rash of fraudulent behaviour from unions?”

There’s also the fact that unions are being treated differently than absolutely everything else — like they’re evil unicorns existing in their own unique world.

“If I’m a lawyer, I have to join the law association to work as an accredited professional,” Smith adds. “In some workplaces, people have to join a union. The two are not that much different. Why don’t these same [reporting] rules apply to other professional organizations? Why are you legislating the affairs of labour unions? That’s what I’d like the minister to respond to.

“It’s obviously meant to attack political groups they don’t like very much,” adds Smith.

This apparent bias is partly why, when the bill came before the Senate, Conservative Senators couldn’t stand it. It would set a dangerous precedent, Senator Hugh Segal argued, for unfairly targeting groups from across the political spectrum.

“If this is to apply to trade unions, why would it not apply to rotary clubs, the Fraser Institute, Christian, Muslim and Jewish congregations across Canada, the Council of Chief Executives, local car dealers or the many farming groups, like the cattlemen’s associations or the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, all of whom do great work?” said Segal. “How about local constituency associations, food banks, soup kitchens, or anglers’ and hunters’ clubs? All of these groups express views on policy. All have the right, under election law, to volunteer in municipal, provincial or federal elections, and all come to Ottawa to lobby and press government on issues important to them. They do so along with representatives of the defence industry, our First Nations and various cultural groups. Are they all to be swept into the CRA bureaucratic remit?”

Here, of course, the argument that union dues should be scrutinized because they’re tax exempt falls apart.

Both Stephen Harper’s federal government and Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government rely on the same rhetoric: that they’re defending the rights of individual union members who don’t want to be forced to toe the union line. The Saskatchewan Party has stated that dissatisfaction amongst union members who don’t agree with union politics is helping drive these proposals.

Of course, this argument is problematic.

“It misses that most unions are democratic organizations — and they are democratic because of the Rand formula,” says Smith. “Again, there are unions that are worse than others.”

Because of the Rand formula, individuals in a unionized workplace don’t have to join the union, but because they enjoy the benefits provided by the union, they do have to contribute dues.

And one thing legislation like this does is give yet another weapon to every management-loving collaborator eager to throw their fellow workers under the bus for their own selfish benefit.

Regardless of how you feel about your union or its politics, both governments are treading a slippery legislative slope.

“I imagine that, were it to pass, subsequent legislation… might be aimed at newspapers; networks, TV and otherwise; student groups; universities; junior baseball leagues; and even, God forbid, community soccer,” said Segal. “Where we are headed with this bill is down a dark alley to a very dark place indeed.”

Here in Saskatchewan, changes to the Labour Code remain unsettled.

[Unions are] not going to have to do it twice, but it’s not clear which legislation is in effect in Saskatchewan,” says Smith. “The legislation has passed, but we don’t know what the regulations are going to force unions to do exactly. The meat and potatoes, to be passed by executive council, will give substance to the laws.”

If it’s redundant, the Saskatchewan Party will change their proposed law.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more provinces challenged this legislation,” adds Smith.

As of June, a total of 16 Conservative senators voted against the federal bill, while six abstained. By the time it left the Senate, the bill had been amended extensively, meaning it likely won’t be applicable to most unions and locals. These days, it is extremely rare for the Senate to roadblock legislation passed by the House of Commons. In this case, the Senate halted the bill with a vengeance.

And how high did the Senate amendments raise the salary disclosure threshold for unions? Rathgeber should be proud: $441,661.

How did we get to this ridiculous point?

“We live in a period of conservative times and those are always hard for working people,” says Smith. “I think unions have work to do in terms of educating their membership as to why unions are important.”

The federal bill will be back in the House of Commons this fall.

2013-08-22