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Harper's Gift to Unions: A Bill of Coal

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Recently the Conservative majority in the House of Commons passed a bill that targets a leading force for equality and democracy in our society. Bill C-377, An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (requirements for labour organizations), is designed to challenge unions' involvement in political activities and divert their resources to busy work.

If passed by the Senate (and the courts don't strike it down), Bill C-377 will require every trade union to file a public information return with the Canada Revenue Agency on expenditures over $5,000. It also mandates that labour organizations detail the percentage of time employees
dedicate to political and lobbying activities.

Justified on the grounds that unions are tax exempt or that they have a fiduciary responsibility for someone else's assets, other professional associations that collect fees or dues from their members, such as the Canadian Medical Association or Law Societies, are not required to
follow the terms of C-377.

And the Conservatives voted down an amendment to the proposed bill from a Liberal MP to extend its reach to all not-for-profits, including corporate lobby groups, involved in labour relations issues and workplace advocacy.

Notwithstanding claims that unions spend without oversight, almost all provincial labour codes require unions to provide standard financial reporting to their members. This is one reason why Québec and Ontario have criticized the bill with the latter province asking the Senate to
vote C-377 down.

As member-driven organizations most union constitutions mandate financial disclosure. According to the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada Constitution: Local Union financial statements must be reviewed by independent Local Union Trustees (or
external auditors) and must be provided to each regular membership meeting (minimum of 4 meetings per year). Furthermore, financial reports of the national union must be provided monthly to Executive Board members (a majority of which are rank and file) and quarterly to
every Local Union.

While they claim C-377 is a way to improve union transparency, the Conservatives have shown a flagrant disregard for openness in government affairs. The F-35 fighter jet purchase, which is set to cost $46 billion, is the latest example of this government's extreme secrecy. Also the
Harper government continues to refuse the Parliamentary Budget Officers request to disclose what effect $5 billion in spending cuts will have on public services.

More generally, the Conservatives have taken message control to a new extreme, making it difficult for journalists to interview government officials (or scientists) without clearance from the Prime Minister's Office.

Since the Conservatives generally refuse to relinquish it voluntarily, those searching for government information have been forced to file Access to Information requests, which has overwhelmed the system. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression reports that it takes longer than ever to access information and the information released is less complete.

The way to make sense of C-377 is to see it as part of a long list of Conservative attacks against civil society organizations that articulate a worldview different from theirs. Because each sector of civil society has different vulnerabilities the Conservatives have taken a different
angle in each case.

Early in the Conservatives' first mandate they chopped funding to organizations pushing for gender equality. Later they began to sever aid to the more progressive-minded international development organizations. More recently, a number of environmental groups have been verbally attacked by government ministers and audited by the Canada Revenue Agency.

Now labour organizations, which are relatively autonomous as they are financed entirely by members' dues and have a well-established legal footing, are in the Conservatives cross-hairs. As most labour policy is a provincial matter, they've moved to rewrite the federal Income Tax Act to specifically target unions.

It's not only union members that should be concerned by this attack. The United Nations, the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have all concluded that unions contribute to democratize the economic and political life of any given
country.

Unions are some of the few mass-oriented organizations that function according to the principle of one person, one vote. The four million union members across the country all have the right to vote for their local representatives. There are no other non-governmental institutions in the country that can claim such levels of mass participation.

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