I have mixed feelings about Bill C-377, now before the Senate, that would force labour unions to disclose their officials' salaries (when above $100,000), as well as the political causes on which they spend money and the groups they sponsor outside the workplace. The reason for the federal bill is that unions, as tax-exempt organizations, should be accountable to the public.
It's impossible to be against transparency when public funds are involved, but the bill casts too wide a net – the unions will have to disclose a dismaying amount of financial information to the Canada Revenue Agency. Moreover, this latest move from a government not exactly known for respecting the principle of transparency smells a bit like a vendetta against the unions. This is somewhat troubling, coming in the wake of a continent-wide fight against the Rand formula – the system that makes the payment of union dues mandatory in unionized workplaces, regardless of a worker's union status.
The state of Michigan has just abolished the Rand formula, and some Ontario Conservatives are campaigning for the so-called "right to work," meaning that workers who don't want to belong to a union could keep their job (while freeriding on the gains obtained by their unionized colleagues).
The Rand formula is the oxygen of the labour movement. It enables workers to rely on strong unions to promote their interests. Even employers benefit from the system: It makes the workplace more stable, and it's easier to deal with a single union per work unit than with several competing groups.
The abolition of the Rand formula would be an unthinkable catastrophe for the Canadian worker, but the risk of this happening is extremely remote. No government in Canada would be foolish enough to touch this powder keg: It would be political suicide.
As for Bill C-377, despite its flaws, it can't be seen as an attack against the unions, not even as an anomaly; in many other countries, including Australia, France, Britain and Germany, the trade unions are subjected to similar disclosure.
As a lifelong member of a journalists' union, I would appreciate more transparency from the labour movement. At the local level, my union is a model of democracy. But local unions are affiliated with federations that function by delegating power up the structure, and a substantial part of union dues is diverted to political activities, without any consultation with their members.
Nowadays, there are fewer work stoppages than, say, in the 1970s or the eighties, and thus less need for the unions to provide financial compensation for members involved in strikes or lockouts. This, coupled with its fiscal privileges (and even allowing for the cost of negotiating collective agreements), provides the labour movement with a great deal of money to devote to various causes. But the rank and file who finance the movement have no say where the money should go.
For years, the Canadian Labour Congress contributed heavily to the NDP even though many of its members supported the Liberals or Tories. Who mandated the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, CUPE Ontario and the Quebec teachers federation to join the boycott against Israeli "apartheid"? Last spring, the three major Quebec labour federations allocated thousands of dollars to support the often-violent student protest against tuition fees, in a crude attempt to topple the Charest government, even though two-thirds of Quebeckers, including countless unionized workers, strongly disapproved of the "red square" movement.
In this context, transparency would be a welcome development.