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UPDATE Jan. 28, 2016: Today Justin Trudeau’s Liberals tabled legislation to repeal Harper’s anti-union Bills C-377 and C-525. While the Conservative-majority senate has hinted it might block the repeal legislation, with no enforcement mechanism in place, these bills appear destined for the dustbin.
As Canada’s unions celebrate their first victory — the elimination of the Harper government’s union-reporting laws — their counterparts in the U.S. and U.K. are engaged in similar battles for workers’ rights.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that his government will do away with the reporting rules required by Bill C-377. This legislation would have forced unions to declare any transactions made over $5,000, all salaries totaling more than $100,000 and details of all political activities starting in 2016.
While the failure of C-377 to make it to the New Year was worth toasting, the fight for workers’ rights — both at home and in the U.S. and the UK — is long from over.
Charles Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Saskatchewan, said unions in all three countries are facing similar challenges in the battle to sustain workers’ rights.
“C-377 was a direct way of saying: ‘the internal affairs of a union are not the internal affairs of the union,'” says the labour union and public policy expert. “It’s pretty clear that [C-377] was a way to…use the state to interfere in the affairs of labour unions, in democratic organizations [and] highlight the type of political work they do.”
A bill proposing amendments to union laws in the U.K., currently being debated in the British Parliament, has many similarities to C-377. Proposed by David Cameron’s Conservatives, the Trade Union Bill — coined as the biggest shake-up in Britain’s industrial legislation in 30 years — would make it harder for workers to strike if passed.
The bill also proposes changes to the process around which union members can pay into their union’s political fund, by replacing the current political levy opt-out system with an opt-in written-requirement for members.
According to a report in The Guardian, the effects of such a requirement would cost the British Labour Party — which relies on unions for about a third of its funding — up to £6 million in annual income.
The motivation behind the Tory’s Trade Union Bill was similar to what propelled C-377, says Smith.
“[Unions are] probably the best financed social movement on the centre left,” says Smith, who added that this is true in all three countries.
“They have a chain of income from their members… and it’s no secret that in these countries, the unions funnel some of that money into the political movement. They have done that forever. And it’s always been a thorn in the side of Conservative parties that they have this well funded opposition,” he says.
In the U.S., there is a case before the Supreme Court involving a challenge by 10 non-union California public school teachers demanding an end to mandatory union dues. At issue is legislation that requires non-union workers to pay fees equivalent to union dues in about 50 per cent of states in the U.S., including California.
The precedent at the centre of the case is based on a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that found unions were entitled to collect fees from non-union workers as long as no money was spent on political activities.
U.S. unions have warned that overturning the ruling and enabling non-union workers to stop paying fees equivalent to union dues would threaten funding to public sector unions by millions of dollars. This would dramatically decrease their political clout.
“It’s the same type of argument [as C-377 and the Trade Union Bill], that individual union dues are being used for political purposes against the will of the individual,” says Smith.
“It’s a cost argument. The right-wing supporters will say: ‘we’re not against the cost of bargaining — that ship has sailed. But we’re against…union dues being used for other purposes.'”
However, this scenario is a distortion, and unions must think “strategically” about combating, he says.
“Just imagine the scenario of a new teacher’s union organized for better education, so it supports a political party that wants more education dollars spent in the classroom.
“How do you separate that from a bargaining issue? You can’t,” says Smith.
Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble’s labour beat reporter this year.
Photo: flickr/ Stephen L Harlow