In a series of recent landmark decisions, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that basic trade union rights, including the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike, are protected by the freedom of association provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Court has struck down federal and provincial laws that deny some workers the right to join a union, which unilaterally change collective agreements without consultation and due process and which limit the right to strike in the event of an impasse in bargaining.
In coming to this view, the Court has noted that union rights are protected under international human rights conventions, and has argued that unions promote Charter values such as human dignity, equality, liberty, respect for the autonomy of the person and the enhancement of democracy.
None of this has stopped the Harper Government from renewing its attack on union rights in the run-up to the federal election.
Bill C-377 is once again under active consideration by the Senate, with its built-in Conservative majority. The bill has already passed the House of Commons and, while not technically a government bill, has the strong support of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Bill C-377 echoes anti-union laws in the United States that require unions to file extremely detailed financial statements with the income tax authorities and to disclose how comprehensively much they spend on specific activities, including those not directly related to collective bargaining, such as political advocacy.
Powerful arguments have been raised by the Canadian Bar Association and former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal among others that the bill amounts to an attack on legitimate union rights and freedom of association and expression through the back door of income tax legislation. Yet the sponsors of the bill have refused to accept significant amendments.
The bill is outrageously discriminatory. Unions, including some 25,000 local unions, will be required to report on all details of spending. But no such disclosure would apply to employers and business and professional associations that are free to represent the interests of their members to the public and to governments as they see fit.
The bill is unnecessary. Union members should indeed be able to see the financial statements of their union, and this is indeed required under provincial legislation already in place across Canada.
The bill is anti-democratic. It is up to union members to decide through internal processes such as local union and executive meetings if they wish to lobby governments or to influence public opinion, Such activities are perfectly legitimate, transparent and legal, though the law often rightly limits the ability of unions as well as employers to contribute to political parties.
The bill is unconstitutional. As the Canadian Bar Association points out, “privacy is recognized as a fundamental constitutional right under Canadian law, and the bill has the potential to invite a constitutional challenge and litigation.” The CBA and other legal experts also testified during House of Commons hearings that the bill undermines fundamental rights in a free and democratic society, including freedom of association, freedom of expression, as well as political rights, rights to personal and commercial privacy and confidentiality, and solicitor-client privilege. Further, the bill interferes with provincial jurisdiction over labour relations, and five provinces have already objected to the bill.
The real purpose of the right-wing, anti-union organizations pushing bill C-377 is to tie up unions in costly red tape, and to set the stage for US-style legislation that would allow union members to pay dues selectively, opting out of so-called “political” use of dues if they so choose.
This is a bad and highly undemocratic idea. The Supreme Court of Canada has long recognized, going back to the Lavigne case of 1991, that the interests of union members do not begin and end in the workplace, and that it is a legitimate extension of union purposes to work to influence government legislation in such areas as health and safety and pensions.
Unions are democratic organizations that belong to their members. As such, they are an important voice in the democratic political process. Trying to stifle that voice through unnecessary government intrusion amounts to an attack on democracy itself.
Rick Smith is Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute