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Merit Contractors, advocates of anti-union Bill C-377, would be caught in its web

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Surely it is one of life's little ironies that among the groups certain to be caught in the web of Bill C-377, the federal private member's "transparency" bill mischievously designed to cripple unions with onerous reporting requirements, would be the anti-union Edmonton-based Merit Contractors Association.

Earlier this year, the Merit Contractors and their counterparts in other provinces set up a website and launched a national campaign complete with news releases and canned newspaper op-ed pieces to support Bill C-377.

But apparently they failed to notice, in the words of a report to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance prepared by the Alberta Federation of Labour, that the funds Merit established for the benefit of its own member companies' employees would be captured under the provisions of C-377.

This isn't how campaigns to harass unions are supposed to end up, is it? If nothing else, this suggests there is a wise and provident God concerned with cosmic justice.

This realization may be why expressions of consternation are now being heard within Conservative Party of Canada circles about this amateurish and unconstitutional piece of legislation.

As has been argued here before, about the only things that are truly transparent about this proposed Cotton-Belt-style law brought forward by social-conservative British Columbia MP Russ Hiebert are its goal of burdening unions with reporting provisions so onerous and expensive they can no longer do their jobs, and the opportunity for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make bogus suggestions the NDP Opposition is too close to "Big Labour."

The Canadian Bar Association's Privacy and Access Law Section has compiled a long list of problems with Bill C-377, including violations of provincial privacy laws, huge administrative expenses for taxpayers and clear examples of violations of Canadians' constitutional rights. The authors of the CBA's letter note that since the financial activities Canadian unions are already required by law to be transparent to their members, "as a threshold statement, it is unclear what issue or perceived problem the bill is intended to address."

Reporting requirements under Bill C-377 would be so intensive (notwithstanding Hiebert's ludicrous claim to the contrary) that unions would be required to spend essentially all their time reporting every expense over $5,000, which would then have to be vetted and published on the Canada Revenue Agency's website at significant public expense.

However, for some reason -- perhaps because he failed to understand the full implications of his own bill despite his training as a lawyer -- Hiebert has omitted to mention in the House of Commons or in public that his bill would require far more groups than just "trade unions" to disclose their finances, activities and the political views of their employees and officials.

This, in turn, has recently led some Conservative stalwarts to holler just hold it a minute. In a recent blog, Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber sensibly asks of the $5,000 reporting limit, "Is anybody really interested in breaching Sally the Receptionist's privacy because she earns 40k answering the phones at the Union Hiring Hall?"

"Many other types of privacy are invariably going to be breached if this legislation proceeds unabated," Rathgeber went on. "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?"

Despite being painted in the media as a maverick, it is said here Rathgeber's blog commentary tends to provide useful insights into what Conservative top dogs are thinking. So we may be getting to the heart of the matter when he worries Bill C-377's faulty premise that the tax-deductability of union dues creates a public interest in knowing what is done with them "would have to be more consistently applied."

"As a lawyer, my law society fees are tax deductible," he explains. "Does that mean that the public has a right to know what the Law Society pays its staff?" Under the logic of C-377, it is said here, the answer to Rathgeber's question is bound to be yes.

Rathgeber therefore sensibly indicates he will not be voting for Bill C-377 -- which as a private member's bill, he cannot be compelled by his party's whips to do. One suspects a lot of other Conservative MPs will be doing the same.

Nevertheless, Bill C-377 could still pass. Which brings us back to the Merit Contractors.

In case they missed it, their organization would be captured by C-377 because of the involvement of some Merit companies with the Christian Labour Association of Canada and other employee groups entitled to bargain collectively, as well as some of its employee group benefit programs that contain money from those groups.

As the AFL pointed out in its brief, this includes a benefit plan run by Mercon Benefit Services, the Merit Contractors' "comprehensive and affordable medical, dental and insurance program," whose sole director is Merit President Stephen Kushner.

This in turn means that under C-377, if it were passed by Parliament, Merit would be obligated to report on the Canada Revenue Agency’s new and improved (and extremely expensive) website the details of Kushner's "gross salary, stipends, periodic payments, benefits (including pension obligations), vehicles, bonuses, gifts, service credits, lump sum payments, other forms of remuneration and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, any other consideration provided, and a record of the percentage of time dedicated to political activities and lobbying activities."

Like any sensible person I oppose the passage of Bill C-377. But if it does become the law, I look forward to reading this private information about Kushner, that enthusiastic supporter of the bill, posted alongside the much shorter and more modest, though equally unconstitutional, section about me!

And if he objects, someone is sure to wonder: "Why are the Merit Contractors afraid of the light?"

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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