Bill C-377: An Ideological Attack on Working People's Interests

by Graham H. Cox last modified 2012-11-09T10:04:47-04:00
Conservative MP Hiebert's anti-organized labour bill (Bill C-377) is an attack on the rights of working people to express their political and economic power. While solving nothing, the bill creates a framework that is designed to undermine democratic workers' organizations. The obvious goal of the bill is to weaken the only mechanism of balance that workers bring to the employer-worker antagonisms in advanced capitalism. However, the bill does this in such a clumsy, unsophisticated and scattered way that the political path to fighting it is not as clear as it should be. Instead of addressing the specifics of the bill, working people must understand this legislation as a broad-sided attack on their ability to fight for their own interests.

 

After reading about Bill C-377 (An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (requirements for labour organizations)), it becomes clear that this bill does not attempt to solve any existing problems for Canadians. Instead, its specific aim is to construct legal obstacles for those who fight for progressive change in this country.

The bill is similar in design to other recent Conservative private members' legislation including attacks a woman's right to have control over her own body, undermining environmental NGOs fighting for balanced environmental legislation, and the undermining government-supported research that contravenes the official government position. In this vein, Bill C-377 is more about imposing a right-wing, pro-corporate ideology on Canadians---an ideology that the vast majority of Canadians oppose.

Instead of solving problems, it creates them by contravening other laws and undermining rights simply to shift more of the economic balance away from working people. Additionally, this legislation would contravene privacy laws, solicitor-client privilege and, most likely, other individual rights outlined in our Constitution.

Despite the bill's fantasy-based talking-point issues (transparency, accountability, etc.), unions are already transparent and accountable to their members. Even if we were to believe that "increased transparency" is the intended goal, this bill would not actually make unions more transparent or accountable to their members. The bill simply creates busy-work and paperwork that diverts resources away from unions being accountable to their members. It would also create a situation where unions have to be accountable to non-members, those that do not pay dues and do not have a stake in the union.

Unions are democratic organizations of their members. Elected union leadership are judged by their members through the democratic vote of members. This legislation, however, attempts undo this and expose union finances to be manipulated by well-funded, anti-union communication firms to try to get the public to judge the workings of unions. The broader public has no interest or stake in the actions of the union or its leadership and bringing the public into the mix essentially redefines unions to be more like reality television shows rather than political organizations of and for workers.

Under currently law, there is an equal playing field between unions and corporations in terms of privacy of internal workings because they are private organizations covered by similar laws. If adopted, this bill would expose the union's internal workings without requiring the same for employers. This disrupts the current balance decidedly in favour of employers and employer associations.

Dues collection, contrary to statements made by the bill's proponents, is currently treated consistently and fairly across similar "closed shop" and "open shop" organizations---employer associations and unions alike. However, this bill would create arbitrary differences between organizations, not based on open shop, close shop or any other economic or structural criteria, but based purely on a extremely biased political definition of "labour organizations".

As it stands, unions are treated fairly under tax law. In fact, they are treated exactly the same as other non-profits and other non-share, member-driven corporations. What makes it clear that the bill a politically motivated attack is that it targets "labour organizations", treating them differently than other similar organizations. This special attention to labour organizations has not been justified by the proponents of the bill and is thus, by its very nature, an unjust and unfair law that should not be adopted in any democracy.

Many of the bill's advocates are focusing their arguments on the "tax benefits" that union members get through their dues being tax-deductible. The idea here is that unions are somehow being supported by other "tax payers" through these deductions. However, absent from their cries of "unfairness" is the fact that union are non-profits (so do not have profits to tax) and that, in total, employers get much larger subsidies from government. Also not stated is that unions pay considerable taxes as consumers of services and commodities in the broader economy. But the real joke of this argument is that this bill does not address any of these supposed tax-fairness "problems." This line on taxes is simply a ploy to rile the Conservative base because the bill does not redefine the tax status of unions as something other than non-profits. What it does do is introduces strenuous accounting and reporting practices that will, in the end, actually cost the tax payer money.

Unions, as democratic workers' organizations, put all resources into protecting the interests of their membership. The simple point of this legislation is to force unions to divert the few resources they have away from protecting the interests of their members and toward unnecessary paperwork. The second part of the bill's agenda---the public reporting of finances---is to open the door to union adversaries, allowing them to play "gotcha" through spinning union finances in a public setting.

The bills proponents' program is two fold: to undermine the work of unions and empower their opponents. In other words, it is about shifting the balance of power away from working people and towards the more extreme right-wing position at foundation of the Conservative Party and the interests of their financial backers.

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