The Conservative’s latest attack on its nemesis, the labour movement, has awoken the Senate, which is playing its role of providing ‘sober second thought’ with gusto in opposition to Bill C-377.
That’s the Bill that would bury “labour organizations” in a pile of administrative red-tape in order to produce reams of useless information about how they spend their time and money, at huge expense to taxpayers who will have to fund the collection, monitoring, and reporting of the colossal pile of information required by the Bill.
A while back, Senator Hugh Segal chastised the Tories for using Parliament for playing petty partisan games designed to silence dissent in the guise of tax policy.
Yesterday, it was Liberal Senate House Leader, Senator Cowan. Read his speech here.
Senator Cowan notes that the Bill is so poorly drafted that it’s impossible to know what it actually means. I noted the same when I recently debated the Bill with Senator Eaton on this blog. Senator Eaton told me that the Bill says one thing, and I told her that I don’t read it that way. One of us is wrong, but in fairness, we won’t know who until a Court sorts it out, at great expense to taxpayers and labour organizations alike. Senator Cowan reads the Bill the same way I did, which is that, “it requires separate entries naming every person who receives money from a labour organization and listing what they received if the cumulative value is over $5,000.”
The Bill Would Capture Employers Associations As Well
Senator Cowan notes that the broad definition of ‘labour organization’ in the Bill will sweep in not just unions, but also any organization “formed for purposes which include the regulation of relations between employers and employees”. That’s interesting. Cowan argues that the broad definition would sweep in lots of organizations that may not realize they are captured by the Bill, including some professional associations that bargain with the government on tariffs (i.e. medical associations) and employer associations, like Merit Canada. Merit is an antiunion employer organization that has lobbied for the Bill. Merit Canada’s slogan in it’s lobbying efforts for the Bill has been “Why is Big Labour Afraid of the Light?”. We’ll have to watch what they think about the light shining them as well. Presumably the Bill could also catch all manner of non-union employee associations that engage employers about working conditions.
The Cynical Singling Out of Unions
The Tories have tried to explain why the onerous reporting requirements apply singularly to labour organizations among all the associations and corporations that exist in Canada. They say it is because union dues are deductible, so taxpayers are providing a benefit to unions, which therefore should be transparent. On that logic, the same reporting requirements should apply to all other organizations that receive tax-supported benefit. Like law societies, for example, which have mandatory association dues that are tax deductible. Why are they not included in this Bill? No explanation has been given by the Tories. I asked Senator Eaton that question directly, but received no answer.
The issue cannot be the tax benefit that labour organizations receive by allowing deductions for union dues. Anyone in this chamber, and I suggested this to Senator Eaton when she spoke on the bill, who is a member of a professional association pays dues and is allowed to deduct those dues from income tax. Why single out labour organizations?
Corporations benefit from some of the biggest tax deductions, yet there is no suggestion that they should be subject to this level of disclosure. Political parties, which receive special tax treatment, have paid staff, but there is no forced disclosure for them. Only labour organizations.
Here’s a fun fact. Corporations billed Canadian taxpayers about $250 million last year in ‘meals and entertainment’ costs. If you watch the Leafs game tomorrow, you may see me in the front row. My ticket and the expensive meal I’m having before the game, with wine, is being subsidized by all of you, since the corporation that gave me the ticket is expensing it. Corporations can claim 50% of the cost of sports tickets and meals. Yet corporations don’t have to comply with reporting obligations imposed on unions in Bill C-377.
Bill C-377 is Part of Conservative Plan to Silence Opposing Voices
Why is it being done? I believe that the answer can be found in a larger story, one where the Harper government is trying to systematically silence individuals and organizations who dare to challenge it publicly. [He then lists all of the voices of dissent the Tories who have been targeted in regulation or through budget cuts].
Now they have set their sights on labour organizations. It is trickier to muzzle them. They do not receive money from the government and they cannot be fired by the government. How to silence their voices? Bill C-377 is how.
Bill C-377 Parallels Russian President Putin’s Use of Tax Police to Stifle Dissent of Private Organizations
After describing the crack down on NGOs and human rights organizations by Russian authorities, Senator Cowan says:
I am sure we would all condemn these actions and recognize them, as the Associated Press put it, as:
“… a wave of pressure that activists say is part of President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to stifle dissent.”
How is this different, honourable senators? This bill asks our tax authorities, the CRA, to enforce compliance with outrageous disclosure requirements that are now going to be imposed on every single labour organization. This will become the new priority of the CRA: going after unions, right after they have cleaned up those dangerous charities that Senator Eaton railed against.
The Feds Refuse Request to Disclose of their Employees the Information Unions Must Disclose Under Bill C-377 — The Government Responds Privacy Laws Prohibit This
Here’s a great story from Senator Cowan:
My colleague in the other place, the Member of Parliament for Cape Breton—Canso, asked the Minister of National Revenue to produce the same information listed in Bill C-377 with respect to the people who work in the Canada Revenue Agency who administer the searchable charitable database. Let me read to you the answer given by the minister. This is a quote: “The Privacy Act precludes the CRA from disclosing personal information about its employees.”
Honourable senators, the CRA is being asked in this bill to require organizations to file the same information about their employees on the Internet, for the entire world to see, that Canadian law prohibits the CRA from disclosing to anyone about its own employees. Where is the fairness in that proposal?
Revenue Canada Admits There is No Precedent for the Level of Disclosure Required of Labour Organizations in Bill C-377
Honourable senators, proponents of this bill try to suggest that these obligations are nothing more than what is imposed on charities and government departments now, but this is simply not true. A number of questions were posed to the Canada Revenue Agency in the other place when this bill was being considered. The CRA was asked whether it was aware of any other private organization that is forced to publicly disclose the incomes and benefits received by all employees and contractors and to identify them by name and address. The response?
“The CRA is not aware of a similar requirement that exists in the statutes it administers.”
No similar requirement exists anywhere in any of the statutes administered by the CRA.
Senator Eaton told this chamber that:
“Canadian charities have complied with similar requirements such as those prescribed in this legislation for over 35 years.”
However, honourable senators, that is not what the CRA says. The CRA was asked about the proposed reporting requirements relating to political activities and whether this is simply the same thing that is required of charities under the Income Tax Act. Their answer?
No. Registered charities are not required to report the percentage of time dedicated to political activities or to lobbying activities by their officers, directors and trustees.
The public reporting required by Bill C-377 is unprecedented.
Purpose is to Bury Unions in Regulatory Red-Tape, Not to Advance Public Interest
In other words, honourable senators, unions are already “accountable to their membership.” If a member wants information, they can get it, by law. If, as Senator Eaton suggested, that is the purpose of Bill C-377, then we can end this right now. The bill is simply not needed. Laws are already in place to do what she wants done.
Of course, honourable senators, that is not the real purpose of Bill C-377. The real purpose is to sideline trade unions, to muffle their voices and to bury them in administrative paperwork so that they cannot do the work which they are there to do on behalf of their members. This bill is designed to impose such onerous and invasive reporting requirements that people will think twice before working for unions or doing business with them….
It does not stop there. It gets worse because Bill C-377 then turns its sights to burying every labour organization under a mountain of paper and red tape. It will require the tracking and reporting of literally every activity and disbursement possible, with particular focus on so-called “political activities, lobbying activities and other non-labour relations activities.”
That the Bill is purely ideological and not driven by any public policy concern is evident in the fact that the author of the Bill, a Tory MP named Russ Hiebert, admitted he had not received a single complaint from a union member about not getting information from their union, as described in this exchange:
Senator Cordy: I was quite surprised that the author of the bill, MP Russ Hiebert, has admitted that he has not actually received a single complaint from a union member that could not get financial information from their union. That surprised me. Why would he bring the bill in? In 2011, a total of six complaints were filed with the labour boards across the country, all of which were resolved — six complaints out of 4.2 million union members throughout Canada. I was quite surprised that Mr. Hiebert would even bring forward a bill when he had gotten no complaints and there were only six complaints out of 4.2 million union members in Canada.
Senator Cowan: I thank the honourable senator for her question. As she suggests, there does not appear to be a public need. There is no demand from union members for this kind of reporting and disclosure.
According to most union members whom I have spoken to, even though they may not be happy with the way in which their unions are governed, it is not for a lack of information. That is not the source of their complaint or the reason for their complaints. Most union members whom I have spoken to seem satisfied with their ability to get the information that they require about the activities of their unions.
I am at a loss.