May 17, 2012

Disclosure bill an attack on unions, says organized labour

A Conservative member of parliament’s private member’s bill which would demand trade unions publicly declare salaries and expenditures every year has triggered a hailstorm of outrage from organized labour.

Russ Hiebert, 33, MP South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale in British Columbia, introduced Bill C-377 which would increase the amount of information unions must disclose, not to their members, but to Finance Canada and ultimately the public.

Hiebert argues the bill is actually supported by rank and file members who want to know where their money is being spent, but trade union groups say it will increase their administrative costs by up to 30 per cent. The bill has passed second reading and is before the federal finance committee.

“They get a benefit in that the money members pay in dues is tax deductible,” said Hiebert.

“All taxpayers should be able to see where that money is spent.”

He said dues to professional organizations such as the Canadian Construction Association or the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) are deductible also but he hasn’t targeted them in his bill because private member’s bills are limited in scope.

“I would have no objection and would support any bill someone else wanted to bring forward which would place professional associations like the OMA under the same rules of disclosure,” he said.

“I’m not targeting unions.”

The U.S. based AFL-CIO is battling C-377 through its Ottawa lobbying offices. The American organization’s members also include many trans-border construction unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association of the United States and Canada (OPCMIA) and the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada.

The AFL-CIO has created the Workers Build Canada, an umbrella group to carry the standard for the 500,000 members it represents in Canada. It has a website and is working with affiliate unions in Canada to call members to action against the bill.

“It’s punitive,” says Christopher Smillie, senior advisor, government relations and public affairs, building and construction trades department, AFL-CIO.

“It targets just one sector of the not-for-profit.”

He argues that professional associations are not facing the same scrutiny even though they are almost exactly the same entity as unions.

“It’s not the unions who get the benefit from taxpayers,” he said.

“It’s the members and we are accountable to them.”

Like a private company whose shares aren’t traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, he said the union is a corporation with a legal duty to reveal their books to their members and they do that already.

“There is about $900 million in tax deductions through associations and unions,” he said. “And unions account for about $400 million of that.”

He said the extra bookkeeping costs will be between 20 and 30 per cent adding that the organized labour movement sees this as being orchestrated by the Merit shops which have gained a foothold on the west coast.

Canada’s largest private union, the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers), which has 200,000 member is also working through the Canadian Labour Congress against the bill. Staff counsel Lewis Gottheil says it must be stopped because it is an unfair burden on unions and doesn’t add anything to what is already required in both federal and provincial legislation.

He said the financial statements are open to any member on request and that C-377 asks for details which are invasive on questionable grounds.

“It essentially says that every transaction over $5,000 must be drilled into separately and the reason for the transaction be listed and reported,” he said.

“In a large national union there are all kinds of these. It’s not just an accounting matter where you note the invoice and pay the bill and note the numbers. You have to provide a reason.”

The danger, he said, is that it also crosses into other areas such as privacy and solicitor-client privilege.

“If a union seeks an opinion from a law firm on an issue, that will cost money because lawyers aren’t cheap,” he said.

“Do they then have to declare what the issue was that was researched? That’s a violation of solicitor-client privilege.”

Further, he said, if a member is in a grievance process and a doctor’s report is sought, does the nature of the report and the name of the member have to be made public?

“If not, then what’s the point of getting this information,” he said.

Gottheil also said it is “disingenuous” not to include professional and trade associations and to target unions.

Smillie said if all non-profits and all associations had to disclose their books in fashion demanded by C-377 it would not be as obvious an attack on unions.

Hiebert says he’s encouraged by his bill’s progress but with the federal budget yet to be dealt with at the (federal) finance committee it’s going to a long wait before his project gets a hearing, if at all.

He said while his private member’s bill face big challenges in being passed, he’s still hopeful because “it’s not impossible.”

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