News | Tories looking to force unions to open books

Opponents argue private member’s bill represents excessive intrusion

Canada’s unions may be forced to disclose annual financial statements to the federal government if a private members bill passes.

Russ Hiebert, Conservative MP for the South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale riding in British Columbia, tabled Bill C-317, “An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (labour organizations),” in Parliament two weeks ago. Under the bill, every labour union in Canada would be required to file a standard set of financial statements each year with Revenue Canada.

“The Federal Government provides substantial public benefits to unions as they perform this valuable task for Canadians. My bill is designed to provide for the financial disclosure of how those public benefits are used,” said Hiebert in a press release, referring to the federal tax exemptions granted to unions.

Hiebert was unavailable for comment due to meetings.

“With public disclosure, Canadians will be able to gauge the effectiveness, financial integrity and health of their unions… The principle is, just like charities, labour organizations receive a public benefit and the public should be informed how that public benefit is being used,” continued Hiebert in the press release.

The bill is accruing significant opposition. Jinny Sims, NDP MP for the Newton-North Delta riding in British Columbia, called the bill “absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary.”

“It is an attack on the union movement. This government has made no secret that they see the unions as barriers, as getting in the way of some of their agenda, and this is another way to undermine the union,” said Sims.

“I think that whenever any of our institutions have this kind of intrusion and oversight it hurts all Canadians, because if you’re going to do that with unions, what’s the next step? If you’re going to do it with the unions, let’s do it with the private corporations as well,” she continued.

The bill is in its second reading in the House of Commons.

Sims, a former president of the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation – which represents 41,000 public school teachers in the province – said union finances are already well monitored.

“Russ Hiebert is behaving as if union funds are public funds. People pay to be members of a union, and there is an incredible amount of oversight into the funds,” she said.

“The business of union dues and how they are handled is the business of those people who belong to that union. It is not public money. It’s money that belongs to members of that union,” she continued.

Lerona Lewis, president of McGill’s largest on campus union – the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) representing over 3,000 members – does not see the bill as a problem.

“You can go online to look to see what was spent, when it was spent, and so on,” she said, adding that transparency was “something we believe in anyway.”

AGSEM’s financial statements are public on the website of their parent union the Confédération des syndicates nationaux (CSN).

Molly Alexander, an advisor to AGSEM from the Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec, another CSN subsidiary, said they were fine with the bill so long as “it doesn’t become just more bureaucracy and more paperwork.”

“Constitutionally…the [AGSEM] executive is required to present a budget and financial statements to its members,” she said.

But Lewis expressed the concern that C-317’s proposals were not worth the potential costs for unions.

“Probably you’ll have to hire another person to just meet those requirements, and if you multiply all the unions and, you know, are you creating more bureaucracy to solve a real problem?” she asked.

A website in support of the bill – c317.ca – states on its home page that “using electronic filing, the annual filing expense incurred by unions and by the federal government should be negligible.”

The website also states that “public disclosure will demonstrate that unions spend their money wisely, effectively and obtain good value for members’ dues. To suggest that this is somehow an attack on the NDP or the labour movement is a fiction.”

Peterborough Conservative MP Dean del Mastro recently accused unions’ leaders of “seeking to buy influence” with the NDP.

Sims noted that a bill to reform union political contributions would have to amend the Elections Act, while C-317 proposes amendments to the Income Tax Act.

“So far the Elections Canada, the people who investigate, have said they’ve got nothing of substance, and once again it is the Tory backbenchers throwing out all kinds of allegations,” she said.

Sims continued to state that Conservatives are “creating a kind of excitement out there to detract from the fact that we have a lot of people in Canada not working.”

“I think the biggest chill factor in this is that this government actually believes they can go in and investigate how people spend their money, money belonging to a group,” she added.


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