Representatives from Local 793 and the Canadian office of the IUOE joined union activists from across the country in Ottawa on Oct. 30 for a special lobby day against Bill C-377.
The union representatives met throughout the day with a number of federal Conservative MPs and Senators in an effort to convince them to vote against the legislation.
The event, organized by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), was attended by more than 200 union members.
Local 793 representatives included Eastern Ontario area supervisor Rick Kerr, Ottawa business rep Andre Chenier, Belleville business rep Jonathan Sprung, assistant labour relations manager Brian Alexander, and director of communications Grant Cameron. Steven Schumann, Canadian government affairs director for the IUOE, represented the International.
The day started with a breakfast meeting at the Delta Ottawa City Centre hotel in downtown Ottawa. Representatives then fanned out to pre-arranged meetings with politicians.
The Bill, officially known as An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (Labour Organizations), Bill C-377, was introduced as a private member’s bill by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert. The legislation is presently being reviewed by the federal Standing Committee on Finance.
The unions hope to convince federal Conservatives that the legislation should be defeated.
They maintain the legislation will only lead to more paperwork and expense for every union that administers pension and benefits plans as they would have significantly more reporting requirements, some of which duplicates existing regulatory requirements.
The unions also argue that the legislation would be very expensive for the federal government to administer, and that it would intrude on individual privacy and may be unconstitutional.
CLC secretary-treasurer Hassan Yussuff told the breakfast meeting that unions have to defeat C-377 because the goal of the legislation is to cripple the Canadian labour movement.
He said MPs and Cabinet ministers need to take “a deep breath” and realize what the legislation is really about – and that is to destroy labour.
“This piece of legislation has nothing to do with transparency,” he told delegates, noting that unions are already required by law to disclose financial information.
The constitutions of labour organizations, in addition to federal and provincial labour laws, already require unions to issue financial reports and make them available to members.
The problem is that C-377 would require unions to provide highly detailed and complicated financial statements far in excess of what could be considered reasonable or fair.
C-377 would require the government to make those details available, not just to union members for greater accountability, but to anyone for any reason, including anti-union employers and interest groups that could use the information to undermine unions and defeat organizing drives.
The unions argue that the very extensive and detailed reporting rules contained in C-377 would simply bury union members and the public in data. The large and complex financial reports would be difficult for many rank-and-file union members to work with, resulting in a barrier to accountability rather than an enhancement.
Even the Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank, admits that the huge volume of information required by C-377 would make it extremely difficult and time consuming for anyone to get a realistic picture of a union’s finances.
Chris Roberts, senior economist at the CLC, said the legislation is simply “bully politics” and the bill will force unions to file significantly expanded financial information that will be expensive for both unions and the government.
“I’m not just talking about PDFs of union financial statements,” he said, “but something more elaborate.”
The unions maintain that C-377 would add to the paperwork and reporting requirements for union pension and benefits plans, thereby increasing the administrative costs of pension plans. Pension plans would have to compile and report to the government literally thousands of payments in excess of $5,000 to beneficiaries.
The additional audit and administrative costs of complying with C-377 could lead to a reduction in the pension and benefit payments available to plan members, the unions warn.
Meanwhile, the unions note that the government will have to pay for the cost of establishing a computer-based system for electronic filing, compiling and publishing of union financial data and also the additional costs for monitoring, auditing and enforcing the legislation.
Unions are also concerned about the legality of the legislation because it would require any Canadian who receives benefits from a plan that also covers union members to have their name, address and the amount paid collected, reported to the government and published online.
The unions say C-377 is discriminatory because it singles out unions and union members for unfair treatment under the law. C-377 applies only to unions and excludes professional organizations such as bar associations and medical associations whose members are also able to deduct professional fees from their taxes as employment expenses, just like union members.
The Canadian Bar Association has said that C-377 is “problematic from a constitutional and a privacy perspective” and that it “has the potential to invite constitutional challenge and litigation.”
The unions say C-377 violates both the spirit and the letter of the federal privacy laws, including the federal Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act – and it almost certainly violates the provincial privacy laws such as Ontario’s Personal Health Information Protection Act.
NDP labour critic Alexandre Boulerice told delegates at the meeting that union members must convince the Conservatives that unions already have transparency and that the proposed legislation is a bad bill.
“This is not a union battle,” he said. “This is a common-sense battle.”
Liberal labour critic Rodger Cuzner said the legislation is an egregious attack on unions and is neither balanced nor fair.
“It’s wrong and can’t be supported.”