An interesting Private Member’s Bill, currently being studied by the House of Commons’ Finance Committee is Bill C-377, which purports to force Trade Unions to become more transparent and accountable with respect to how they handle their members’ dues. Specifically, if passed, Bill C-377 would impose that trade unions post on a publically accessible website all expenditures it makes over $5,000.
The stated reason is to allow union members access to information regarding how its union bosses spend their hard earned dues dollars. A laudable goal without question; however both the scope and the breadth of this proposed legislation is causing me some trouble.
Firstly, the $5,000 disclosure benchmark is incredibly low compared to ANY other mandated disclosure regime. Whereas public sector disclosure obligations vary widely, (largely absent in the Federal Public Service, $75,000 in BC, $100,000 in Ontario) union employees earning theoretically minimum wage would be subject to having their names and salaries disclosed on a public website. Is anybody really interested in breaching Sally the Receptionist’s privacy because she earns 40k answering the phones at the Union Hiring Hall??
Moreover, many other types of privacy are invariably going to be breached if this legislation proceeds unabated. If one of the Building Trades spends $10,000 rehabilitating a carpenter who fell off scaffolding, suddenly the injured worker’s name, rehabilitation hospital and costs become a matter of public record. If a Union member and his spouse divorce and if the Member’s Pension Credits are to be divided as part of a Matrimonial Property Settlement, the fact that the Union Pension Administrator writes a check to the non-member over $5,000 would suddenly become disclosed, with the beneficiary’s name, on a public website. Where is the public interest in any of this disclosure???
I absolutely believe union members are entitled to know how the union spends their hard earned union dues. Subject to some reasonable privacy issues regarding the scenarios above, a union member clearly should have access to the salaries of his union bosses, hospitality expenses and how much the union spends on lobbying. What is much less clear to me is why members of the public should have access to this information.
Unions are private clubs; they are not public institutions. They serve only the interests of their members arguably counter to the public interest by bidding up wages. The public has very limited access to expenditures and salaries at public institutions (Privacy Legislation prevented my quest to obtain the salaries of Peter Mansbridge, Rick Mercer and George Stroumboulopoulos). So exactly why does the public have a legitimate interest in knowing the salary of a union President or the aforementioned Sally the Receptionist??
A very good but not easily answered question. The proponents of C-377 argue that the tax deductibility of union dues somehow creates a public interest in what the collector of those dues does with them. According to the theory, tax deductibility equals forgone revenue to the treasury, which makes it akin to public money and thereby creating a public right to know how the forgone tax dollars are spent.
A dubious proposition because tax deducted dollars are not public dollars; they are private dollars that the state has chosen not to tax. Moreover if tax deductibility truly created a public interest, it would have to be more consistently applied. As a lawyer, my law society fees are tax deductible. Does that mean that the public has a right to know what the Law Society pays its staff?? I would argue no and certainly there is no existing obligation for the Law Society to disclose. As a member of the club, I believe I have a right to know but do not see a similar right for non-members of the club.
Moreover, if I take a client out for lunch, 50% of that is written off as a business expense. Should the restaurant have to disclose how much it pays the server and the cooks simply because of the tax deductibility of the meal??
I have obvious and I believe logical concerns regarding Bill C-377. Although I unequivocally support the principle that union members have an interest in knowing how the union leadership spends its money, I am less convinced that non-members have a similar interest. I eagerly await the Finance Committee’s deliberations; if there are no amendments considerably limiting the breadth and the scope of the Bill, I will be unable to support Bill C-377.