Rankandfile.ca‘s Andrew Stevens answers a few questions from fellow Rankandfile.ca editor Doug Nesbitt about how the Harper Tories have introduced new labour legislation, including bills C-377 and C-525.
Q: What is the reason why federal anti-union bills C-377 and C-525 have been introduced by Tories as private members’ bills. What exactly is a private members’ bill?
A: Technically, a private members’ bill is a piece of legislation introduced by a legislator who is not acting on behalf of the government. Usually these bills serve a special interest and are not matters of “official” public policy. Constitutionally, they cannot contain provisions that require the spending of public funds unless a recommendation is given by a Minister. There are other restrictions on when a bill can be debated and where it’s included on the Order Paper (list of daily business in parliament), and so on.
This is what makes the handful of private labour reform bills so interesting. Some of the biggest changes we’ve in the past three years have been private members bills. Bills C-377 and C-525, for instance, propose significant changes to how union finances are disclosed, as well as how workplaces certify and decertify. In some cases, the Conservative government has packed critical labour relations reforms into omnibus budget implementation bills. Other pieces of legislation, like back-to-work orders introduced to prohibit and end work stoppages at Air Canada, CN, CPR, and Canada Post, have been seemingly crafted on an ad hoc basis.
Considered together, does this cluster of laws, or proposed laws, constitute a coherent Tory labour policy? That’s the real issue here. These un-coordinated private members bills let the government off the hook if opposition mounts by letting blame safely land on the shoulders of individual legislators. Still, anti-union “Workers’ Choice” resolutions that mirror these private members bills were a focus of the Conservative Party convention in 2013.
Q: What do bills C-377 and C-525 do? What is their rationale?
A: Recently we’ve seen Bill C-525 pass third reading in the House of Commons. This bill was introduced by former public servant and Conservative MP, Blaine Calkins. If proclaimed, the law would make it more difficult for workers to unionize while making it easier for existing bargaining units to decertify. I’ve been told that Calkins’ bill was inspired by coffee side conversations at an Alberta Tim Horton’s, the heartland of Tory policy making apparently. An expert witness, who was invited to speak to the bill, mentioned to me that Calkins was offended by the fact that he should be criticized for bringing up an issue he felt was important to his constituents. It was also made clear that Calkins and other Conservatives are clueless when it comes to labour law and the implications of meddling with such complex matters.
Of course, there’s also Bill C-377 “An Amendment to the Income Tax Act”, introduced in 2012 by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert. C-377 started out as Bill C-317 in the fall of 2011, but was ruled out of order by the Speaker because it included financial provisions not allowed in private members’ bills. Hiebert initially wanted to see unions that failed to comply with his transparency legislation lose their tax exempt status.
Hiebert’s C-377 project is interesting because of how it developed and ended up getting gutted by his Tory colleagues in the Senate through a variety of amendments. C-377 invoked the language of transparency and accountability to craft public support for a proposed law that would impose onerous accounting costs on unions in Canada. If it plays out into law, “labour organizations” would be required to post all financial statements and transactions over $5,000 on a government website – all on the grounds that union dues are tax deductible. Corporations and professional societies who similarly benefit from tax credits are not included here, of course.
Q: C-377 was framed as a transparency bill but what about transparency about how the bill is created?
A: Hiebert’s cause received significant support by two of Canada’s leading anti-union organizations: LabourWatch and Merit Contractors. In fact, a poll conducted by Nanos for LabourWatch helped to build support for “union transparency” legislation before Hiebert even introduced his bill, then C-317, in parliament. The results of the widely discredited poll were released as part of LabourWatch’s “State of the Unions 2011 Labour Day report.” This is where acclaimed pollster, Nik Nanos, was sucked into the scandal and forced to defend his company’s reputation and methods in front of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA), the industry’s self-regulatory body.
Then there’s the flogging Hiebert and C-377 received in the Senate. During a subcommittee hearing, one Senator even remarked that he wasn’t convinced Hiebert actually crafted the bill considering the MP’s lack of knowledge of the details and scope of the legislation. Representatives from Merit, of course, were granted expert status to speak to the bill in various contexts, which is remarkable since they represent “open shop” or non-union construction companies and would not be affected by any provisions contained in C-377.
Hiebert has since declared that he won’t seek re-election (he will be seeking “opportunities in the private sector”, as is Conservative tradition) and C-377 could very well die in the Senate. All the while the government can simply walk away from this train wreck without a scratch.
Q: You recently discovered that private members bills have less public oversight than a government-sponsored bill. Can you explain your discovery?
A: It’s clear that in the case of Bill C-377 especially that much is going on behind the scenes. Because I am interested in the connection between Hiebert and various organizations like LabourWatch and Merit, I submitted an Access to Information (ATI) request looking for details in calendars, day planners, and official records from the MP’s constituency office. A federal privacy coordinator informed me these types of records for individual legislators are not accessible through ATI requests. That was a surprise. There’s a brilliance to pursuing “policy” through private members bills: you can hide your trail because of exemptions contained in the legislation and ATI protocols. It’s not so much that a private members’ bill is cloaked in secrecy, only that private members themselves, and their respective offices, are not subject to the same level of transparency as a Ministerial counterpart.
Andrew Stevens is an Assistant Professor of Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management at the University of Regina Faculty of Business Administration