OTTAWA - With his private-member's bill on union finances now before the Senate, Conservative MP Russ Hiebert says he's confident it can withstand a constitutional challenge.
But labour groups say they're ready for a court fight over the legislation, which they predict could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
Bill C-377 was passed by the House of Commons on Wednesday after it was amended to remove provisions dealing with pensions. The changes will also make it less expensive for the government to implement, the British Columbia MP told a news conference on Thursday — a claim the unions strongly dispute.
Almost as soon as the bill left the House, labour groups began an intense lobbying campaign to persuade senators to scrap it.
A number of labour and legal organizations have predicted the bill won't stand up to court scrutiny, but Hiebert insisted that the experts he consulted all say it is constitutionally sound.
"In drafting the bill, we brought it to a variety of constitutional experts in Canada, " he said.
"They assured us the way that it's drafted would sustain any constitutional challenge."
The bill, once passed into law, would force unions to publicly disclose how they spend the dues they collect.
It would amend the Income Tax Act to require unions to provide detailed annual financial filings to the Canada Revenue Agency, which would in turn make the information public.
The amended bill approved by the Commons will, however, keep some personal information from public view for privacy reasons.
"I believe the bill that's been placed before the Senate is actually an improved bill," Hiebert said.
"Several amendments were made to C-377 ... that improve protections for individual privacy and reduce the cost of the bill to the government."
The Conservatives fail to mention that unions are already required to make their financial information available to members, say the Opposition New Democrats.
"This bill will result in an imbalance and benefit companies which will be able to gain access to unions' financial information and use it to their advantage," said NDP labour critic Alexandre Boulerice.
Before the amendments, the revenue agency had estimated the legislation would cost over $20 million to implement and almost $4 million annually to deal with the financial files delivered by unions.
But that figure assumed that about 1,000 unions in Canada would report to the tax agency, the Canadian Labour Congress said.
The actual cost of setting up a regime and overseeing compliance could range from $32 million to $45 million a year, CLC president Ken Georgetti estimated.
"There are 25,000 labour organizations that just belong to the Canadian Labour Congress," he said.
"Each one of those organizations will have to file 26 pages of reports to the federal government."
That's close to the number of union groups in the United States that send financial reports to the federal government, which spends $40-million a year to handle them.
The Canada Revenue Agency has also said it could take until 2015 to set up the systems to enforce the bill. But Hiebert said he expected information on union finances to start flowing to the public before the next election, scheduled to be held in the same year.
The original bill would have required unions to disclose the salaries of any staff or directors who were paid more than $5,000. An amendment raised the reporting threshold to $100,000.
The federal privacy commissioner's office and the Canadian Bar Association said Thursday they continue to have concerns that the legislation would inappropriately divulge private information.
"The privacy concerns and the constitutionality concerns have not changed," said the bar association's Michael Mazzuca.
"What the amendments have done is they have now specifically excluded registered pension plans and some health plans."
However, some other funds held by the unions, including those for training and education, would still be up for public scrutiny, he said.
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Labour Day: A Canadian Invention
Few Canadians realize it, but Labour Day is as Canadian as maple bacon. It all began in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday. When <i>Globe and Mail</i> chief George Brown had the protest organizers arrested, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald passed a law legalizing labour unions. Thus, a Conservative prime minister became a hero to the working class, and Canada became among the first countries to limit the workday, doing so decades before the U.S. The typographers' marches became an annual event, eventually being adopted by the U.S., becoming the modern day Labour Day.
The Winnipeg General Strike
The end of World War I brought social instability and economic volatility to Canada. On May 15, 1919, numerous umbrella union groups went out on strike in Winnipeg, grinding the city to a halt. Protesters were attacked in the media with epithets such as "Bolshevik" and "Bohunk," but resistance from the media and government only strengthened the movement. In June, the mayor ordered the Mounties to ride into the protest, prompting violent clashes and the death of two protesters. After protest leaders were arrested, organizers called off the strike. But the federal mediator ended up ruling in favour of the protesters, establishing the Winnipeg General Strike as the most important strike in Canadian history, and a precursor to the country's modern labour movement.
The Regina Riot
During the Great Depression, the only way for a single male Canadian to get government assistance was to join "relief camps" -- make-work projects set up by the federal government out of concern idle young men were a threat to the nation. The relief camps, with their poor work conditions, became breeding grounds for communists and other radicals. The "On-To-Ottawa Trek" was organized as a protest that would move from Vancouver across the country to Ottawa, to bring workers' grievances to the prime minister. The trek halted in Regina when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett promised to talk to protest organizers. When talks broke down, the RCMP refused to allow the protesters to leave Regina and head for Ottawa, and on June 26, 1935, RCMP riot officers attacked a crowd of protesters. More than 100 people were arrested and two killed -- one protester and one officer.
In May, 1938, unemployed men led by communist organizers occupied a post office and art gallery in downtown Vancouver, protesting over poor work conditions at government-run Depression-era "relief camps." In June, the RCMP moved in to clear out the occupiers, using tear gas inside the post office. The protesters inside smashed windows for air and armed themselves with whatever was available. Forty-two people, including five officers, were injured. When word spread of the evacuation, sympathizers marched through the city's East End, smashing store windows. Further protests against "police terror" would be held in the weeks to come.
Giant Mine Bombing
In 1992, workers at Royal Oak Mines' Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories went on strike. On September 18, a bomb exploded in a mineshaft deep underground, killing nine replacement workers. Mine worker Roger Warren was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder. The Giant Mine closed in 2004.
The Toronto G20
The Canadian Labour Congress, representing numerous labour groups, participated in protests in Toronto during the G20 summit in June, 2010. When a handful of "Black Block" anarchists rioted through the city core, it brought an overwhelming police response that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. More than 1,000 people were arrested, with most never charged with any crime. Numerous allegations of police brutality have been made, and the Toronto police are now the target of several multi-million dollar lawsuits. So far, two police officers have been charged with crimes relating to G20 policing, and charges against other police officers are also possible.
When Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters suggested the public "occupy Wall Street" to protest corporate malfeasance, New Yorkers took the suggestion seriously, and occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Canadians followed suit, sparking copycat occupations in all major Canadian cities in September, 2011. By December, most of the occupations had been cleared, all of them non-violently. Though the protests achieved no specific goals, they did change the political conversation in North America. What their long-term legacy will be remains to be seen.