By Mae Burrows & Donald Gutstein

Imagine you have a decent health plan for your family's medical emergencies, but, if you use more than $5,000 worth of services, your personal information is posted on a website for anyone to read. Or, imagine you run a small business and your competitors can read about your research and development consultations, and the wages and benefits you pay your employees, but you are blind-folded to their budget details. This is what the current session of Parliament may hold for unions, union families and nionized companies under Harper's Bill C-377, "An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (Labour Unions)."

It's "part of the Conservative government's anti-union agenda," says Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council. "They don't like unions because unions have a different agenda: to represent workers' rights at the bargaining table. They want a master-servant relationship, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

"The Conservatives say they like the free market," he notes, but "this is political interference in the market. They are changing the balance on the playing field in favour of non-union contractors."

Harper wants labour unions to be gone and he is doing what he can to achieve that goal. Since labour relations are mainly a provincial responsibility, there's only so much he can do, but he's pulling out all the stops. First, he destabilized labour relations under federally regulated, unionized industries (Air Canada, Canada Post and CP Rail spring to mind) by ramming through back-to-work legislation in some cases and referring disputes to the Canada Industrial Relations Board in others. Then he slashed away at public sector employment, intent on weakening unions in that sector.

His knife could go deeper. Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton) is threatening to introduce legislation that would allow employees in industries under federal jurisdiction to opt out of joining a union and paying union dues. It would make the federal government a right-to-work jurisdiction just like Kentucky, Georgia and Texas.

But his most severe blow to the union body politic so far is Bill C-377, which, if passed, will require onerous reporting of union financial information for all to see, and, because this bill amends the Income Tax Act, it applies to every union in Canada. That's the "genius" of the bill,according to the National Post's right-wing national affairs columnist John Ivison.

The bill was introduced into Parliament by South Surrey Conservative MP Russ Hiebert in 2011. Not only does it require unions to submit financial statements, but it also asks for a detailed list of all transactions and disbursements over $5,000, along with the name and address of the payer and payee, and the purpose, description, and specific amount of the transaction.

Unions will have to provide separate statements of all disbursements on political activities, lobbying activities, contributions, gifts and grants, administration, general overhead, organizing activities, collective bargaining activities, conference and convention activities, education and training activities, and legal activities. The bill also asks for statements of disbursements to officers, directors, trustees, all employees and contractors. These statements must include gross salary, stipends, periodic payments, pension and benefits, vehicles, bonuses, gifts, service credits and lump sum payments.

For the icing on the cake, the bill asks for a record of the percentage of time each employee and officer dedicates to political and lobbying activities.

Some union members will pay three times: at the national level, at the provincial level and at the local level. Small locals - those with perhaps 300 members - will have to come up with an estimated $50,000 to pay for this degree of financial accounting. It could break them or, at least, take money away from productive work, just like the Conservatives are planning. The information will be posted on a searchable government website.

Making public such detailed filings on union affairs will give anti-union employers a huge and unfair advantage when dealing with their workers, and provide valuable insights into union plans. After all, employers are not required to provide similar information.

"The detailed information about unions required by the bill is far in excess of what's required by any other non-profit organization, any charity, even any publicly traded company," says Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti. "It clearly separates out unions for unfair treatment under the law, but the collateral damage is immense. It will create a huge government bureaucracy to process union disclosures." As Georgetti notes, these costs to government are hardly defensible at a time when the Harper government is cutting back on essentials such as coast guard services.

The bill's supporters are numerous and well-organized. They include the National Citizens Coalition, the social conservatives at the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies, the Fraser Institute, and the Montreal Economic Institute.

Non-union construction contractors who are members of Merit Canada are strong supporters. Wonder why? They "will have full access to all our financial information," says Sigurdson. Imagine Bell Canada having access to all of
Telus's financial information, and not vice versa.

Russ Hiebert claims the bill will require unions to disclose no more than what other charities already do. This explanation was accepted by the mainstream media. As Kathryn May wrote in the Ottawa Citizen, the bill calls "for unions to make massive mandatory financial disclosures to the Canada Revenue Agency similar to the disclosures made by charities." The inference is that, if that's all that's being asked for, who could be against it? Unless they have something to hide. But this is a far-from-accurate depiction of the very limited reporting requirements for charities displayed on the Canada Revenue Agency website. Only summary information on employee compensation and other expenditures is posted there.

"We don't mind being accountable for our finances," says Sigurdson. "Our pension funds are filed and we have audited statements available to our membership. But the detail of this bill is onerous, and it's objectionable that all the details will be made public. There's no other example of this in any sector of society, not business, not charities, certainly not the banks."

Since the Harper government wants this bill to become law, the bill has leapfrogged to the head of the long list of private members bills, the vast majority of which never get beyond first reading. By the middle of March 2012 it had received second reading, including support from the Prime Minister, and was referred to the Standing Committee on Finance. At presstime, the committee had not yet taken up the bill.

The mainstream media seem content to report the progress of the bill without much comment. No one asked how a junior MP from suburban Vancouver could put together a bill with such deep knowledge of union affairs. True, Hiebert is a lawyer, but not a labour lawyer. Windsor- area NDP MP Joe Comartin suggested one possible answer. He pointed to the similarity of Hiebert's bill to legislation in the U.S. and the role of anti-union politicians like Newt Gingrich.

In 1992, Gingrich wrote a memo to the secretary of labour urging her to boost reporting requirements for unions "to weaken our opponents and encourage our allies." This approach became entrenched in Republican thinking. Republican adviser and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist later opined that "every dollar that is spent on disclosure and reporting is a dollar that can't be spent on other labour union activities."

The George W. Bush administration put the strategy into effect in 2005. Bush's deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove (known as "Bush's brain") had a long-term plan to destroy the finances and political strength of unions - unions that spent $200 million on behalf of Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 election. That had to be stopped or else Rove might not be able to successfully execute his plan to make Republicans the permanent governing party. Within two years, the amount of information required from unions increased by an estimated 60 per cent, with a parallel increase in the time and money required to fulfill the reporting requirements.

Stephen Harper is Canada's Karl Rove, working for a similar permanent Conservative majority. Unlike George W. Bush, he's his own brain. He's been accused of "Rovian tactics" - "highly aggressive, message-controlled and truth-challenged politics" - by his critics, as the Canadian Press wrote about him on a visit Rove made to Toronto in 2010. Like Rove and the Republicans, anything Harper and the Conservatives can do to weaken unions will ultimately weaken their new mortal enemy, the NDP, because of the long-standing connections between the party and organized labour.

At the same time, as Georgetti points out, "Employers will be able to use information gleaned from the financial reporting to learn where unions are organizing workers, and to put their considerably greater resources into fighting those union organizing drives. It will mean a
tougher organizing climate for unions."

The Canadian Bar Association wrote a letter to the Conservatives pointing out how the bill tramples privacy and constitutional rights. Just as important is the emerging view that a strong labour movement is positively correlated with a more equal society. Bill C-377 puts all of that in jeopardy.

As of November 21, 2012, the finance committee had held two meetings to discuss Bill C-377. Many problems with the bill were highlighted by witnesses such as Jennifer Stoddart, Canada's privacy commissioner, CLC president Ken Georgetti, Robert Blakely from the Canadian office of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, representatives from the Canadian Bar Association, pension fund managers and others. Privacy concerns were front and
centre for obvious reasons. Even the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) had called on the government to withdraw and redraft the bill because it violated privacy laws and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A second issue was the bill's impacts on pension funds, which would also be required to disclose any payments over $5,000. Several pension fund managers explained the severe financial impact the bill would have on their operations.

But Stephen Harper has faced widespread opposition to his schemes before (eliminating the long-form census is one case), and that hasn't stopped him. Some sources believe the Conservatives want to pass the bill by Christmas.

Mae Burrows is a long-time environmental and social justice activist and her partner, Donald Gutstein, is an adjunct professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University and is working on a book about Stephen Harper. Their column, called "Jobs, Environment, Justice," will return to Our Times magazine's print issue with the ever-popular annual women's issue, in the new year. Don't forget to subscribe! Feedback is always welcome.

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