Labour unions say they are prepared to challenge the constitutionality of a private member's bill that – if passed into law – would force them to make detailed financial information public.
An amended version of Bill C-377 passed third reading in the House of Commons on Wednesday night and was sent to the Senate for review. Russ Hiebert, the Conservative MP who tabled the bill, said he believes unions should welcome it as an opportunity to "dispel the myth" that they are not transparent. He suggested most labour organizations already collect the information his bill seeks to make public, adding it should be a "very simple thing" to meet the requirements of the legislation. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Hiebert played down suggestions that the bill could be unconstitutional, saying it was reviewed in advance by a "variety of constitutional experts" who indicated that it would stand up to a court challenge.
"Now, that's not to say that opposition to the bill will not try and use the courts to prevent its implementation," he said. "But I'm very confident that it will withstand any such challenge."
Critics say the bill would place a heavy financial burden on the government as well as unions, because the Canada Revenue Agency would have to collect the filings and post them online.
Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said he believes the legislation targets unions unfairly. If the Senate passes it, he said the CLC would not hesitate to turn to the courts.
"It's going to cost our members a lot more to comply with this legislation than a court challenge," he said. "But notwithstanding that, it's not fair. … We're not going to be bullied by a Conservative government who is intent on trying to silence our criticism of legislation or policies that they bring forward."
The Canadian Bar Association, which voiced concern about the bill earlier this fall, said the proposed law is vulnerable to a constitutional challenge because it could be viewed by the courts as interfering with the right to freedom of association.
"The amendments that I've seen don't address any of the privacy and the constitutionality concerns that we expressed," said Michael Mazzuca, a Toronto lawyer and spokesman for the CBA.
Amendments introduced on Wednesday night removed sections of the bill that would have applied to pension plans, and limited salary disclosure rules to those who are paid more than $100,000 or are in a position of authority. Mr. Hiebert said the changes were aimed at reducing the cost of the bill to the government and curbing privacy concerns. A Liberal amendment that sought to make the bill applicable to other organizations – not only unions – was defeated. Unions say they have already begun their efforts to fight the billas it moves through the Senate.
"Of course, if this bill becomes law as a result of the review from the Senate, and it gets finalized, the [Canadian Auto Workers] will join with other affiliates and we will take our constitutional rights to the courts," said Ken Lewenza, national president of the Canadian Auto Workers.
"And [we] feel very, very confident that this bill will be overturned."