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A condominium construction site off Spadina Avenue in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
A condominium construction site off Spadina Avenue in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Opinion

Conservative bill forcing union disclosure is costly and inefficient Add to ...

We would ask hard questions about someone who rushes to save a piece of burning toast while his kitchen is on fire. Likewise, questions must be asked about a government that spends enormous time and energy interfering with private institutions while millions of taxpayers dollars are being wasted on public construction projects in Canada.

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Those federal tax dollars are overspent annually on infrastructure projects due to restrictions on labour competition. At the same time, many unions spend the dues collected from their members on causes that do not have rank-and-file support. Both are real public problems that superficially seem different but are, in fact, intricately linked. Both are solvable through government policy aimed at greater accountability. The accountability can come from either effective government regulation or increased competition.

Curiously, with legislation that might have come from the far left of the NDP in another context, Conservative MPs are choosing increased regulation rather than competition. They are earnestly promoting Bill C-377 , which orders that any union expense over $5,000 be publicized to all Canadians, not just a unions members. The Parliamentary Budget Officer will conduct a cost analysis of the bill before it returns to committee in the next few weeks.

C-377 tries to solve the problem of unions spending money on projects sponsoring Israeli apartheid days or funding student strikes in Quebec, for instance that have nothing to do with the work they should do. Yet its strict provisions outstrip, by a wide measure, the obligations imposed on charities or corporations. Its a classic case of government intervening in private associations of citizens while creating costly and ineffective regulation detrimental not only to union members, but to all taxpayers.

Will the bill create greater union accountability? No. Its objective is to publicly disclose political activities. But most unions make no secret of their political involvements anyway. Last year, Ontario unions disclosed spending millions for political purposes through the Working Families Coalition, which filtered the funds into provincial Liberal election efforts.

Union dues flagrantly supported one side in a political campaign. The real problem was not anything that would show up on a balance sheet. It was the army of union "volunteers" who ran campaigns all over Ontario at no cost to the Liberals. Yet provincial Progressive Conservative efforts to make it an election issue got no serious traction. Nor would the federal Conservatives Bill C-377 have prevented it.

What the bill will do is drive unions to cover their flanks and increase consolidation. Larger unions can handle regulation and paper work. They are also far less likely to be accountable. They will move, like any large bureaucratic organization, toward central hubs of political power and work less for their base-line constituents. In other words, C-377 will work directly contrary to its supporters intentions.

That leaves the alternative to regulation: competition. Ensuring greater competition among unions would force them back to the basics of representing front-line workers. Nothing promotes accountability like having someone ready to take your job or your business. It works for government. It works in the union world, too. Sadly, C-377 is more likely to snuff out the small, independent unions that are looking to innovate, reinvigorate and renew Canadas labour movement.

The competition those smaller unions create is good for union members. It would also be a major benefit to taxpayers. A new Cardus study shows just how significantly union monopolies increase costs for municipal, provincial and federal infrastructure projects.

For example, the federal government alone lost between $13-million and $53-million on the Union Station renovation in Toronto due to a construction labour monopoly. In Hamilton, the new Woodward Water Treatment facility cost federal taxpayers between $11-million and $46-million more than if there had been competition from multiple labour pools on the project. And that doesnt include costs incurred by the provinces or municipalities.

Do the math. On two projects alone, thats $24-million to $99-million in wasted spending. Now weigh that against proponents of Bill C-377 fussing over $5,000 internal union expenditures. Which of these two should really concern Canadians most: the kitchen fire or the burning toast?

The answer, surely, is for Conservative MPs to protect their constituents pocketbooks and jobs through wise stewardship of federal tax dollars. They should do so (and simultaneously solve Canadas union problems) by relying on conservatives bread and butter promoting competition rather than half-baked interventionist schemes.

Brian Dijkema is a senior researcher and editor with Cardus policy institute in Hamilton.

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