By Andrew Stevens
Senate committee hearings recommenced last month to consider testimony and evidence regarding Conservative MP, Russ Hiebert’s floundering anti-union bill, C-377. As RankandFile.ca reported in 2014, the private members’ legislation, innocuously titled “An Amendment to the Income Tax Act,” will impose unprecedented reporting standards upon labour organizations in Canada. Not only will unions be required to publicly disclose all financial information and transactions over $5,000, but elected officials will be required to account for the amount of time they commit to particular activities. C-377 is being sold by Hiebert and his political allies as a mechanism to align Canadian reporting standards with a counterpart program south of the border, the Office of Labor-Management Standards, as well as a means to uphold union transparency.
With support from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) it seemed that the Conservative majority in the House of Commons and Senate could have been able to made quick work of Hiebert’s legislation, initially introduced in 2012. But C-377 quickly faced a bi-partisan coalition of opposition, exposing divides within the business lobby. Representatives of finance capital, accountants, the federal Privacy Commissioner, as well as the legal community, sided with labour to oppose the bill during a series of hearings dating back to 2013. In fact, the Canadian Labour Congress, Canada’s Building Trades Unions, and others from the ranks of labour found themselves on the same side as financial institutions when providing expert testimony before Senate. Through the leadership of former Conservative Senator, Hugh Segal, some of this critique was funnelled into a set of amendments to reform C-377, which could have effectively rendered the bill useless. But, with the timing of this Senate motion and the prorogation of Parliament in 2013, these revisions were never considered by the House. So if C-377 failed to muster support even amongst Conservatives, who is backing the bill?
Findings from a forthcoming article in Labour/le travail, co-authored with Dr. Sean Tucker at the University of Regina, reveal that supporting the legislation is a thin line of Conservative allies, namely the CFIB, Merit Contractors, and LabourWatch. Led by lobbyist and former House of Commons researcher, Terrance Oakey, Merit has helped to identify the true purpose of C-377: to function as a mechanism through which the anti-union lobby can effectively counter labour’s political messaging and activism. With Canada on the brink of a federal election, the passage of C-377 could provide Merit and other Conservative allies with the tools to help generate support for right-to-work legislation as strategic expenditures and union officials’ time are exposed through a Canada Revenue Agency website.
LabourWatch president, John Mortimer, has also made it clear that C-377 is part of a bigger game plan in the conservative ranks, according to documents revealed through a freedom of information request. Just before the House passed C-377 in 2012, Mortimer wrote to then-Labour Minister, Lisa Raitt, “I am in Ottawa for this important day… for the conservative movement and for Canadian taxpayers.” So much for an organization that claims to be non-partisan. LabourWatch itself functions as a labour law reform front group for the CFIB, Merit, and the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, all of which populate its board of directors. LabourWatch was also instrumental in working to generate public support for C-377 in advance of the legislation’s launch when it released its State of the Union 2011 report. The LabourWatch-funded poll that informed the report’s findings was ultimately investigated by the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) and found to be “potentially biased” for its use of dubious priming questions. Such are the forces behind legislation that claims to be motivated by an interest in accountability and transparency.
Sources in the Senate suggest that the future of C-377 remains uncertain, with discussion restricted to only a few, short pre-election hearings. And with the NHL Players’ Association looking for an exemption under the bill, Hiebert’s legislation could now be on even shakier ground politically. Some Tory Senators have even held up the Senate as a model of transparency and financial accountability during turbulent hearing discussions, indicating that Conservatives really have exhausted all rational appeals when attempting to back the bill. Meanwhile, CLC President, Hassan Yussuff, has assured Senate that should C-377 pass it will undoubtedly lead to a constitutional challenge. What is clear is that C-377 remains a marker of ideology, and most certainly an illustration of the government’s anti-union legacy. Should the legislation fail, it could feasibly return embedded within omnibus legislation if the Conservatives return with another majority mandate. But most importantly, the saga surrounding this bill has exposed the mechanisms of anti-unionism in Canada and the means through which it generates public discussion, works with allies to craft legislation, and appeals to the well-meaning language of transparency and accountability. Unions must learn from this example.