Conservatives vs. Conservatives – Anti-union bill gets gutted in Canadian Senate

When the Federal Tories took “progressive” out of their title after merging with the Reform Party, it was inevitable that the radical right wing ideology of the Reformers would come into conflict with the more pragmatic former Progressive Conservatives.

This week the Conservative majority in the Senate effectively blocked a bill from the Conservative majority in the Commons demonstrating that at least 16 Conservative Senators had no appetite for the kind of anti-democratic rough play that has been characteristic of the Harper government. Another six abstained from the vote.

Amendments by the Upper House have stalled a piece of anti-union legislation brought under the cover of a private members’ bill. Bill C-377 was introduced by MP Russ Hiebert to force public disclosure of all union payments of $5,000 or more to outside groups or individuals. It also proposed that any union salaries over $100,000 be subject to disclosure along the same lines as the Ontario Sunshine list.

Unions run on dues collected from members, they don’t rely on taxpayer funding. While union members have access to financial information and participate in the decision-making around how that money is spent, there is no particular reason why those who don’t contribute should have access to that information.

At OPSEU the union budget is debated openly every year at Convention. The details are hardly a secret when close to 2,000 people are present for the discussion.

What the legislation would do is create a lot of red tape for the labour movement, something the Tories are always vowing to erase or reduce for the business sector.

It’s true that union dues are tax deductible, but so are RRSPs. We don’t see equivalent legislation applying to Canada’s financial sector.

The Harper government initially told union leaders that the bill was a private member initiative and not government policy, but when the critical vote came in the Commons, the Tory whip did ensure Conservative MPs passed it. We somehow doubt Stephen Harper is losing sleep over that broken promise.

No doubt the intent of the legislation is to harass the labour movement and to flush out what is being spent on political activities unions engage in on behalf of their members. There is little doubt that the Harper government would like to silence labour’s contribution to public debate and leave an open playing field to the corporate sector to shape public opinion to support their own interests.

Labour is Canada is still sizeable enough to act as a counterweight to corporations seeking to reshape the country to their own interests.

OPSEU is presently working to highlight the impact of the provincial Conservatives’ pledge to enact U.S.-style labour legislation in Ontario. No doubt the long term goal is to stop us from engaging in these activities altogether even if such legislation would adversely affect the wages of members we represent.

One of the first thing any union member learns is that what happens in the larger world has a direct impact at the bargaining table. If unions cannot participate in public debate around those larger issues, members will lose when it comes time to negotiate a collective agreement.

Clearly there are at least 16 Conservatives in the Senate who can see just how unfair and anti-democratic this bill is. Not that they are getting any respect for doing their jobs from the government.

According to the Globe and Mail, Marjory LeBreton, Conservative government leader in the Senate, called fellow Conservative Hugh Segal “mischievous” for introducing the Sentate amendment.

The amendment sent back to the Commons includes increasing the spending threshold to $150,000 and requires disclosure of salaries of more than $444,661 – the equivalent of the highest payment to a federal deputy minister. It would also exempt unions with less than 50,000 members from disclosure.

With the return of the amended bill to the Commons, it means the Commons will likely not deal with it again until the fall.

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