Organized labour in Canada is under unprecedented attack. This attack comes through the economic policies of right-wing, neoliberal governments that punish working Canadians in favour of corporations and the private sector. It also comes through legislative changes that undermine individual charter rights to association and collective bargaining and restrict the ability of unions to represent their members. On the heels of Labour Day, our attention is demanded.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent austerity budget has led to the elimination of many well-paid unionized jobs in the public sector and an increase in poorly-paid positions with little or no security. The austerity agenda is also destroying Canada’s social safety net. The Employment Insurance program has been weakened, the age of retirement has been increased, and vital community-based programs and services have been cut. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, provincial budgets have followed a similar path.
Harper’s government has also taken a hard line with labour relations in the public sector, or at least in sectors deemed to have a significant impact on the public. As we have seen, Ottawa has aggressively intervened in collective bargaining to end or prevent strikes at CP Rail, Air Canada and Canada Post.
Of particular concern is Bill C-377, currently before the House of Commons, which calls for more disclosure of union finances. The legislation proposes changes to the Income Tax Act that, if adopted, would require every labour union in Canada to disclose to the Canada Revenue Agency detailed statements of all financial transactions in excess of $5,000. This reporting includes details about how money is spent on activities such as organizing, collective bargaining, education and training, and political action. Under measures contemplated in Bill C-377, the details of union activities would be disclosed online.
Notwithstanding the excessive administrative burden C-377 would create for unions, the reporting requirement would also be an incredible public invasion into their daily operations. Forcing labour organizations to publicly disclose their financial statements — which is a higher disclosure requirement than that of any other organization or corporation — compromises the privacy inherent in unions’ relationships with their employees and other individuals, companies and associations with which they do business.
For instance, salaries, expenses, pension and other benefits payments to union employees would be disclosed as would disbursements on legal activities, which could potentially breach solicitor-client privilege.
Unions are democratic organizations accountable to their members, not to the general public. Financial statements are already open to all their members through audited statements and regularly scheduled membership meetings, and currently comply with a host of reporting obligations to the Canada Revenue Agency and provincial regulators.
Bill C-377 was introduced as “An Act to amend the Income Tax Act,” but it has nothing to do with taxes. It is simply a tactic that allows Parliament to interfere in the labour laws of this country, in regulating something that is primarily within the provincial sphere of jurisdiction.
C-377 only serves to undermine the ability of unions to fully and fairly represent their members by exposing their operations and giving an unfair and significant advantage to employers.
At the provincial government level, there is also much to heed. Legislation and other actions are being implemented that weaken labour laws, undermine collective bargaining, freeze wages and otherwise put the interests of employers ahead of workers.
For example, in Saskatchewan, Bill 5 broadens the definition of essential services to deny a much wider range of workers the right to strike while Bill 6 restricts the ability of working people to join unions and to engage in collective bargaining. Bill 18 in British Columbia contains anti-democratic changes that restrict academic staff members at colleges and universities from being elected to boards of governors if they also participate in union work. In Ontario, legislation was recently introduced to force contracts on teachers that would freeze wages and cut benefits as well as ban strikes.
Of significant concern is the move in Ontario to introduce U.S.-style, right to work legislation. Don’t be fooled by the name though. While it is touted as being pro-worker, it is designed to destroy unions and the right to collective bargaining by eliminating the provisions of the Rand formula.
The Rand formula provides that all employees who benefit from a collective agreement must pay dues to the union that negotiates and enforces the agreement on their behalf, whether or not the individual joins the union. In simple terms, everyone benefits so everyone pays. Right to work legislation simply allows employees to avoid paying dues.
If this same logic were applied to other required contributions made by individuals to a collective system then public services as we know them would be dead. Of course, this is consistent with a right-wing, neoliberal agenda that seeks to minimize the role of government so that capitalism in its purist form can reign.
It is argued in Ontario that right to work legislation is needed to kick-start the province’s economy. Proponents of the legislation postulate current labour laws as outdated and advocate for greater market flexibility. Unfortunately, the flexibility here is geared to benefitting only employers while workers’ rights are lost as they are forced to accept ever-declining wages in a race to the bottom, not one to prosperity.
In Canada, the post-secondary education sector has achieved a high rate of unionization among both academic and support staff. This has been crucial to Canada’s university and college system being one of the best in the world. If this is to continue we must take notice of these attacks on unions and the broader labour movement and work hard to defend the hard-won gains and rights that unionization and labour laws provide and to protect post-secondary education as a public good.
In light of this, we must work with our sisters and brothers in the broader labour community to defend the collective strength of the union movement in Canada. After all, unions have been one of the only tools that have succeeded in reducing inequality in our society and improving the wellbeing of workers right across this country.