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Where the push for union transparency should start

Teachers from Central Senior Public School in the Trillium Lakelands district of eastern Ontario picket outside the school in Lindsay, Ont. The picketing is part of rotating walkouts staged by the Ontario Teachers Federation to protest government action to limit union rights.


Organizations that have special protections, such as exemption from tax, have a special obligation to be transparent. At the same time, legislation should be founded on principles; it should not bear the appearance of arising from a campaign against a particular group.

A private member's bill that the House of Commons passed on Monday, which is concerned with labour unions, invites questions along such lines. It would be decidedly preferable for members of unions, professional associations and charities to develop their own rules on such matters as accounting, disclosure and compensation for their officers, but if these rules do not appear rigorous, then the organization's members have little cause to be surprised or indignant, if the government sees fit to step in.

Bill C-377, which will now go to the Senate, is an amendment to the Income Tax Act. The Canada Revenue Agency will have to administer and enforce the detailed record-keeping that the bill, if enacted, would require of trade union officials and employees. One estimate has it that 22 new CRA personnel will have to be hired; some say more. This seems unduly expensive at a time of budgetary restraint.

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By a historical anomaly, the CRA has a large role in regulating charities. For lack of any Department of Charities, it has had to take on the job of deciding whether an organization seeking charitable status actually has charitable purposes, according to the common law.

In contrast, there is little reason to suppose that Canadian labour unions are really commercial enterprises in disguise, trying to shelter their profits from tax.

Labour relations, moreover, are regulated by federal and provincial boards and departments. It is not obvious that the tax gatherers are needed to help out.

Unionized employees are generally too passive in scrutinizing union officials. They should be more like activist shareholders, questioning executive compensation, all the more so because they pay compulsory dues, rather than receiving dividends.

The Senate should take a good look at Bill C-377 and consider amending it to reduce the burden on the CRA. But it is to be hoped that this debate will encouraged unionized workers will undertake new initiatives of their own, for greater disclosure and transparency.

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