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Bill C-377: Transparently Anti-Union

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This month, a private members bill C-377, "An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act" (requirements for labour organizations), is scheduled for third reading in Parliament, one of the last steps before becoming law. The bill, introduced by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert, singles out unions and their trusts (including pension and benefits plans) to file public, keyword-searchable statements on all transactions over $5,000, including salaries of all employees and pension and disability payouts matched with identifying information. Additionally, unions would have to disclose itemized lists of services and supplies purchased from private firms along with prices paid.

Just as the 2012 budget is dubbed the "jobs and growth" budget while it slashes at least 20,000 jobs from the civil service, Bill C-377 is being presented as a measure to increase transparency and accountability, when it is nothing but an attempt at attacking and distracting a key element of civil society -- labour unions.

Unions like the Public Service Alliance of Canada are, of course, already accountable and transparent to their membership. At all levels -- local (i.e., the workplace), regional and national -- the leadership is elected and rank and file members can not only ask to see budget details but also have a say in spending decisions. Even so, as surmised by one observer, bill C-377 will now impose "financial disclosure requirements on unions far greater than those required of any other organization in Canada. Not even the government itself is required to provide this level of disclosure."

While cutting public funds to organizations that refuse to toe the Conservative party line like the Native Women's Association of Canada, Canada Without Poverty, and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, can be accomplished by ministerial decree, defunding unions, which operate on membership dues, is far less evident for the Harper government.

Effectively, the Conservatives are using bill C-377 to burden labour organizations with endless and costly paperwork under the guise of transparency and accountability, in the hope that this will distract unions from fighting the absurdly long yet ever-growing list of excesses and abuses perpetrated by the Harper regime.

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In their quest to disrupt unions, however, it appears the Conservatives are ready to inflict some collateral damage, even if that includes the privacy of Canadian citizens. As noted above, the current formulation of bill C-377 would require disclosure of pension and benefit plan members' details, and this would also include those of non-union workers if their plans operate via a trust that also covers unionized workers.

The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) warns that "details of members' and beneficiaries' pension and benefit payments amounts exceeding $5,000 will be publicly available, along with their addresses...Individuals in receipt of disability benefits or in need of significant drug benefits will have their personal information (including reason for being in receipt of disability or which drugs are being taken) publicly available."

Reflecting these concerns, in its submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) rightly argues that "[t]here is absolutely no reason for the government of Canada to collect information from any health plan ... on payments to an individual for mental health counseling services or for marital counseling as an example."

These infringements on the privacy of Canadians, amongst other extreme measures contained in the bill, are so severe that the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) has openly urged that it not be passed into law. To this end, the CBA explains that "the Bill lacks an appropriate balance between any legitimate public goals and respect for the privacy interests protected by law," and adds that it "interferes with the internal administration and operations of a union, which the constitutionally protected freedom of association precludes..."

It is certainly difficult to believe that the Conservatives' motivations are in any way underpinned by principles of transparency and accountability. The Conservatives' first 425-page budget 2012 implementation bill, passed in June, changed or abolished 74 pieces of legislation at once, without a semblance of proper debate. And the second phase of the budget implementation bill, this time a 443-page mammoth presented in mid-October, seeks to repeat the trick and implement changes to items as diverse as environmental and aboriginal law that were not even discussed in the 2012 Budget tabled in March. (That most Canadians are opposed to such measures, moreover, appears to be of no concern to the Conservatives.)

Or take the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) investment treaty, to be ratified imminently after Harper rejected requests for public hearings. The treaty will lock Canada into a 31-year regime that elevates the secretive interests of foreign investors above those of the Canadian public, prompting the Ottawa Citizen's Michael Den Tandt to exclaim: "That something so far-reaching would be imposed, almost entirely without debate, is mind boggling."

Bill C-377's thinly-veiled attempt at diminishing unions' capacity for political action against the Conservative agenda of cuts to public services as well as tax and regulatory breaks for corporations is the latest chapter in the Harper government's dishonest assault on civil society, a vital component of democracy. During his recent visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the Francophonie Summit, where he reportedly visited local civil society groups, Stephen Harper said that he hoped that in the future "la Francophonie and other major organizations will decide to hold a summit only in countries with democratic standards." One can't help but wonder whether Canada will qualify.