Recent anti-union legislation passed by the Harper government has added yet more fuel to the mass of combustible material that exists in Canadian society. Bill C-377 will force unions to publicize sensitive information about the state of their finances and thus will place them at a significant disadvantage in future struggles of workers with their bosses. With a federal election now in full swing, both the NDP and Liberal party have pledged to repeal Bill C-377 once in power. Regardless of the outcome of the election and the fate of this particular bill, labour leaders need to step up and organize mass resistance to these types of maneuvers in the future.
In 2011, The Toronto Star reported that Bill C-377 proposed to require unions to report information "including every transaction or disbursement over $5,000 for conferences, collective bargaining activities, training, lobbying, political activity and payments to union officers and members. The name and address of each person involved in any of these transactions would have to be reported to CRA and would be made public [on the Canada Revenue Agency website]." Salaries of union officials above $100,000 would also have to be reported, under the legislation.
Bill C-377 was originally tabled as a private member's bill by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert in 2011. Interestingly, while private member's bills traditionally don't stand a great chance of being passed into law, Harper was seen to have put his full weight behind the ascent of this particular legislation. The bill made it through the House of Commons, but was soon held up in the Senate by former Conservative and current Liberal Senator Hugh Segal, who managed to rally 16 Conservatives behind attempts to amend the legislation and water it down. Harper was undeterred by this rebellion, however, and prorogued parliament in order to quash it and push the bill through at a later date, which he has now accomplished.
Before getting into the details of what this legislation will mean for workers if it is enacted, one might wonder, from where did this dissent within Harper's own camp originate? In contradistinction to those on the Left who see the Right as a single, unified bloc, this experience illustrates the reality that there are at least two distinct camps operating within the sphere of the ruling class, whose divergent viewpoints are becoming increasingly clear through the experience of the current crisis. Harper, on the one hand, can be seen in this case and many others to be doing the bidding of the more aggressive, narrow-sighted wing of the bourgeoisie, whose goal is to attack and ultimately destroy labour organizations so that workers can be exploited more easily and profits can be reaped more readily. The dissident senators can be seen, on the other hand, to represent the more cautious wing of the ruling class, who prefer to co-opt and appease the existing leaders of the labour movement in order to secure peace on terms relatively advantageous to them. Harper's strategy, from their standpoint, is dangerous because it risks provocation, which could in turn unleash forces beyond both their and the labour bureaucrats' control.
As for the bill itself, voices from both within and outside of the labour movement have raised important critiques. Toby Sanger, an economist for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, for instance, has maintained that "It's unnecessary. Labour unions are already transparent and are required by federal, provincial and territorial legislation and their own constitutions to be democratically accountable and to provide regular financial reports to their membership. Financial statements are prepared regularly and disclosed at Local meetings and Convention. Salaries of elected officials and staff are also disclosed to union membership at least annually." As can be deduced from this statement, transparency and accountability are the right of workers in a union to enforce on their elected leadership. What Bill C-377 attempts to do, in this regard, is to place the matter in the court of "public opinion", a court whose agenda is set by the needs of the ruling class through their control of the mass media, and in this sense is not very "public" at all.
Sanger also points out that no other organization in Canada, whether public, private, non-profit or charity, has such stringent reporting requirements. The bill forces unions to submit at least twenty-four different detailed statements for any expense over $5,000. To put this in perspective, MPs submit only one statement consisting of fourteen items and senators submit one consisting only of five items! This point really gets to the crux of the matter: Bill C-377 targets unions as a means by which to tilt the balance of the struggle between capital and labour in favour of the bosses. This is accomplished by making unions publicize their expenditures on political campaigns, organizing efforts, as well as any funds that may be available for strike pay to members in the event of a strike or lock-out. On the flip side, the bosses are not required to disclose any such comparable financial details on their books. In this light, complying with this legislation would be akin to surrendering to the enemy prior to a battle, one's own complete intelligence with regards to the strength of their forces, as well as elements of strategy and tactics. You could imagine what a one-sided battle might result from this!
Critics in the liberal-bourgeois press have focused on the bill's excessive red tape requirements and how these will be a drain on union officials' time, money and energy. Also mentioned are the millions of dollars they will cost the taxpayer to fund the collecting, publishing and policing of the records. While these assertions are true, they miss the main point of Harper's thrust with the law. The point is to attack workers' organizations, the fundamental level of strength the working class possesses in its struggle with the capitalists. In this regard, Sanger also misses the mark when he approvingly quotes Senator Segal as to the precedent setting nature of the legislation. According to Segal, there is a danger that the reporting requirements could eventually be extended to newspapers, television networks and universities. But why would a bosses' party like the Conservatives go on to attack private institutions which are already directly or indirectly under control of the bosses? Under the current conditions of the organic crisis of its entire system, capitalism needs this particular piece of legislation as a means by which to weaken unions. This, in turn, will allow them to more effectively continue their relentless assault against wages, benefits and other workers' rights that were won in the previous period. While union leaders such as Hassan Yussuf, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, like to claim that these attacks are an ideological vendetta, it is clear that they have deeper roots in the separation of society into mutually antagonistic classes.
Others have alleged that Bill C-377, if enacted, will invade the privacy of approximately twelve million Canadians. It is also claimed to be unconstitutional, in the sense that it interferes with provincial jurisdictions (seven provinces have already objected to it), and in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, particularly in regards to freedom of association, expression, political rights and the rights to personal and commercial privacy and confidentiality. While these critiques are valid, all they serve to really do here is demonstrate the fickleness of bourgeois law in a period of crisis and heightened class struggle. When profitability is at stake, the ruling class will stop at nothing to smash any obstacles that are in its way. While liberals may complain about how Harper has flaunted the established norms, rules and procedures of parliamentary democracy over the course of his time in office, the reality is that he is merely carrying out the bidding of the capitalist class in a most determined fashion.
In order to defeat this anti-union law, it is not enough for labour leaders to merely state their opposition in the press and then hope that an NDP or Liberal government will repeal it. Rather than waiting on the outcome of the election, unions should immediately begin an energetic campaign amongst the rank and file with an eye to defying the legislation and refusing to submit reports if and when the time comes. Transparency and accountability of the workers' elected leaders is essential to the success of their organizations in their struggles with the bosses; however, this is the right and responsibility of the rank and file to enforce, not the CRA. Marxists argue that the only real way to ensure rank and file control is for elected representatives of unions to be paid no more than the wage of their electors, and to be recallable in the case that they are not doing what is necessary to lead the workers to victory. These are the means by which leaders drawn from the ranks of the workers can be made to remain loyal to the workers and continue to represent their collective aspirations to the fullest.