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Bill C-377 a.k.a. The Expensive, Unfair to Unions Bill

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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 The Canadian Bar Association says that Bill C-377 is so deeply flawed that it should be withdrawn.

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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.

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