The Conservative government has a disturbing habit of introducing significant changes to Canadian public policy by sleight of hand. One way is by using 400-page omnibus budget bills to make legislative changes that usually have nothing to do with the budget. The recent massive alterations to Canada's Navigable Waters Act is one example. Another shady way of dealing is for the Prime Minister's Office to have Conservative MPs introduce private members' bills that are really government bills in disguise.
Bill C-377 is one such piece of legislation. The bill would force every labour organization in Canada to file detailed financial information, including the names and addresses of companies and individuals paid more than $5,000 cumulatively in a year. This information would be posted publicly on a Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) website. The government spins this as being about union transparency. In fact, it is more about helping employers, the Conservative Party and special interest groups with close ties to them. If passed, Bill C-377 will tip the balance of labour relations in Canada.
The government seems determined to ram C-377 through Parliament, even though legal and privacy experts have testified the bill is likely unconstitutional, infringes on provincial jurisdiction, and constitutes a violation of personal and commercial privacy laws. The net being cast by C-377 is so wide that it would mean even private contractors who clear parking lots or provide janitorial services in union offices will have their names, addresses and the amounts paid to them publicly posted on a CRA website. The Canadian Bar Association says that Bill C-377 is so deeply flawed that it should be withdrawn.
BLOG CONTINUES AFTER SLIDESHOW
Beyond those concerns, the provisions of Bill C-377 would involve a massive and unnecessary waste of public money. When MP Russ Hiebert introduced Bill C-377 in October 2011, he said that its cost to the federal government would be "negligible." That is simply not true.
Both the CRA and the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) were asked to estimate how much Bill C-377 would cost the government to implement and administer. Both organizations admit that the wording of Bill C-377 is so vague and indeterminate that it is extremely difficult to come up with solid cost figures.
The CRA's estimates assume that fewer than 1,000 labour organizations would have to report. The PBO believes that 18,300 union organizations would have to report. We believe, with good reason, that both estimates are too low. The scope of Bill C-377 is such that it includes every union local, large and small in the country, meaning that about 25,000 labour organizations would have to report.
In the United States, a department that administers similar but less onerous reporting regulations had a budget of $41.3 million in 2012 to track 26,000 unions. We estimate that it will cost the Harper government anywhere from $32 million to $45 million a year to set up a regime and oversee compliance of Bill C-377 for a similar number of labour organizations in Canada.
Let's put this into perspective. Stephen Harper's government is shutting down the coast guard station on the Vancouver harbour, Canada's busiest waterway, in order to save $900,000 a year. The government shut down the St. John's Search and Rescue Call Centre to save $1 million a year. Ottawa is also laying off food inspectors and corporate tax auditors, and it is not following up on billions of dollars of lost revenue stashed away in offshore tax havens.
No corporation, charity or special interest group, such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation or the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, is subject to the kind of financial reporting that this bill dictates for unions.
Union members can deduct their union dues from their income tax and according to Mr. Hiebert, that means unions should provide minute details of their financial transactions to the public at large. Of course, others such as doctors, lawyers, accountants and people in any number of other occupations can deduct their professional association fees from their income tax as well. Yet Bill C-377 will not apply to any of those associations. There is no justifiable explanation for this obvious discrimination and for the intrusion into the everyday workings of what are private organizations owned and directed by their members. This is a fact recognized by provincial jurisdictions that require unions to make financial statements available to their members, not the public.
Of all contract negotiations, 99 per cent result in a settlement, without a strike or a lockout. When that balance shifts to favour one party, labour strife occurs. This bill will tip the balance in favour of employers, providing them with a taxpayer-subsidized public website that will give them an unfair advantage during collective bargaining and will likely result in unnecessary work stoppages.
It is beyond comprehension that the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister are prepared to squander tens of millions in taxpayer's money in this way to reward their friends and insiders. Bill C-377 should be withdrawn.
Ken Georgetti is president of the 3.3-million member Canadian Labour Congress.
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 Globe and Mail 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 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.
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.
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 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.
Follow Ken Georgetti on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CanadianLabour