A major battle with big consequences for Canada's labour movement is set to play out over the coming weeks in the Senate.
While attention on the Red Chamber is largely focused on expenses, Senators are preparing to debate and likely pass Bill C-377, which would have big policy implications for Canada's unions.
Warnings from labour leaders that the legislation would bury unions in expensive red tape have largely fallen on deaf ears. Conservatives have shown little sympathy for organized labour, often stating that they will not take marching orders from "union bosses."
WHAT IS IT?
Bill C-377 is Conservative private member's bill that has already passed the House of Commons and is on track to become law by summer after Senate hearings that will begin this week. The bill would force unions to make a wide range of financial disclosures to the Canada Revenue Agency that would then be posted online.
WHO IS ADVOCATING FOR IT?
Employer groups are supporting the bill through an organization called Labour Watch. Its board of directors includes executives from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, the Retail Council of Canada and Merit Contractors Association, which advocates for the right of construction workers not to join a union.
Proponents of the bill argue that because union dues are tax-deductible, Canadians should be able to see what unions do with the money.
B.C. Conservative MP Russ Hiebert has said he was inspired to propose the bill after discovering that unions in the United States have disclosed similar information – such as executive salaries and aggregate financial statements – for decades.
WHO ARE ITS CRITICS?
The seriousness with which one union views the bill was evident earlier this month in a convention hall next to the Gatineau casino.
"Keep calm and know your enemy," unionized tradesmen and construction workers were told as pictures of their opponents in the lobbying campaign – executives from Merit – flashed on big screens.
Bob Blakely, the chief operating officer of the Canadian Building Trades Unions, was on stage, outlining his plans. "There is a psy-ops war – a psychological operations war – going on now," he said. "The press war is about to start and eventually there'll be a war war where we're talking about who does what in our business."
In spite of Mr. Blakely's characterizations, his union is not as outmatched politically as he suggests. The federal lobbyist registry indicates that both Mr. Blakely and Terrance Oakey, president of Merit, often have access to senior officials in the Conservative government.
WHAT IS THE IMPACT?
Unions fear the bill would drown them in paperwork – such as disclosing the percentage of time staff spend on political activity – with rules that are not clearly defined. There are also questions as to whether the bill is constitutional. It is being proposed as an amendment to federal tax law, but critics say it is a labour bill that rightly belongs before provincial, not federal, legislators.
Supporters say it would expose unions that fund activities most of their members likely do not support, such as federal public service unions that endorse separatist parties in Quebec.
Critics of the bill question why it singles out unions, pointing out that other groups that benefit from tax exemptions – such as the Law Society and the Chamber of Commerce – would not be affected. U.S. labour disclosure law also requires statements from employers, but Bill C-377 would not impose such obligations in Canada.
Not all of Mr. Hiebert's caucus colleagues support the bill. Five Conservative MPs voted against it when it passed a final House of Commons vote 147-135 on Dec. 12.
Earlier this month, the Senate voted to approve the bill at second reading and study it at committee. Three Conservative senators – Pierre Claude Nolin, Nancy Ruth and Hugh Segal – abstained, although the vote passed 55-35.
Mr. Segal spoke strongly against the bill in the Senate.
"This bill is about a nanny state; it has an anti-labour bias running rampant; and it diminishes the imperative of free speech, freedom of assembly and free collective bargaining," he told his colleagues.
In an interview, he said it is not clear yet whether the bill will be amended in the Senate. He said that will affect whether the bill can pass a final vote in the Senate.
"I've had several caucus members say to me that unless there's a few amendments made, they'll have great difficulty supporting it," he said.