A year ago the Senate had the chance to pass Bill C-377, which would have imposed new financial transparency rules on Canada's unions, including the amount of time and money spent on political activities.
Instead Liberal Senators teamed up with a handful of Conservatives to gut the Bill and render it meaningless. Fortunately, Parliament was subsequently prorogued and the Bill was reinstated in its original form in the Senate last fall, where it still sits today.
The need for this legislation has never been more apparent as union bosses like the Ontario Federation of Labour's Sid Ryan boast about the resources and organization they invested to defeat the Conservatives in the last provincial election. Satisfied with that outcome, Ryan recently wrote "now that we have stopped Hudak, Harper is next." He later elaborated that the Canadian Labour Congress and provincial federations of labour plan to mount a similar campaign in the next federal election, with preparations to begin in September.
There is nothing inherently wrong with unions pursuing a political agenda, though it is concerning that their recent engagement is less about policy and more focused simply on defeating conservative candidates. Unions in Canada have essentially become the equivalent of the Super PACs seen in the U.S.
Super PACs can raise and spend vast sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates, though are barred from donating money directly to political candidates. Sound familiar? That is essentially what is happening with unions in Canadian politics now, though Canadians like to think of our electoral system as being above the American one and its big money influence.
And how much money could be involved? Keep in mind unions collect over $4 billion annually in forced contributions from Canadian workers. That money can be spent however the union bosses want, including on political activities. No other country has a system like this and the bizarre result is that unions run "anyone but conservative" campaigns even though bosses like Ryan have conceded that up to 30 per cent of his members may vote Conservative.
It is not just the federal level that should be concerned either. How long before the model of the Working Families Coalition of unions that spends millions to influence Ontario elections is exported to other provinces? This is something that should concern all parties. While conservatives have been the target thus far, Working Families did the NDP no favours in Ontario in recent years with its support of the Liberals.
However, Liberals should also be wary since unions will quickly throw their money at another party if you dare step out of line, as happened in the 2012 Ontario by-election in Kitchener-Waterloo when unions spent over $1.5 million in ads in support of the NDP campaign following a government showdown with teachers' unions.
That is perhaps the most disturbing element of this big money politics: it is hard to see it as anything other than buying influence. Working Families will support the Liberals in Ontario, but if they do anything perceived to be against union interests, a shot is sent across the bow and money goes to an NDP by-election. It is only slightly more subtle than waking up with a horse's head in your bed.
This is why Bill C-377 is needed. Parliament has gone to extraordinary lengths to make Canada's electoral system among the most transparent in the world, yet there is a gaping black hole when it comes to union spending.
With unions now taking such an overt role in political campaigns, they should have to disclose the amount of time and money they are spending on political activities. The House of Commons has already passed legislation that will mandate this and it is now time for the Senate to do the same and make Bill C-377 law. Only then will Canadians be able to see just how much time and money unions are investing to influence politics, which is critical information if we are to then judge the governing record of the party that benefitted from that largesse.
In addition, unionized Canadian workers should have the same rights as their counterparts in the rest of the developed world and be free to opt out of the portion of their dues used for political activity.
In the United States, for example, unionized workers can opt out of the portion of their dues that would be used for activities not related to collective bargaining, such as political campaigns. Likewise, France, Ireland, Italy and Germany all have legislation which prohibits the use of compulsory dues for contributions to political parties or candidates.
With a federal election and as many as six provincial campaigns coming up in the next 18 months, we cannot afford any further delays with these two major reforms. One is close with a Bill ready to be passed by Parliament. Quick action is needed on the other.
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