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Union scrutiny bill flawed

Backbench MP's legislation could backfire on Conservatives

It might help government backbench MPs in Ottawa to be reminded that the law of unintended consequences applies as much to their private member's bills as to any legislation.

A prime example could be made of Conservative MP Russ Hiebert's well-intended, but potentially disastrous, legislative attempt to force labour unions to publicly disclose their financial records on the Internet.

Hiebert's motives are undoubtedly honourable and perfectly understandable. It doesn't take an advanced degree to realize that unions are not the natural constituency of Conservative parties (although at least some union members are.) Part of the motive for this legislation comes from the active involvement of unions in recent election campaigns.

In the last Ontario election, the Working Families Coalition, funded by unions, spent up to $10 million on anti-Conservative advertising. It was partly why Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals won. When union leaders are in a position to influence public policy, they tend to do so in a way that goes against the partisan interests of Conservatives and their friends. Vengeance may be the Lord's but humans, being political animals, are no slouches at striking back.

The rational argument is that the legislation provides union members and the public with proper disclosure on how much is being spent influencing politics and public policy. Disclosure of all transactions over $5,000, the name and address of the payer/payee, the purpose and nature of the transaction and the individual amount for all expenses will be required.

Although arguments are made that unions are simply being held to the same disclosure requirements as charities or public companies, the detail required is of an entirely different degree. Such detail is essential if exposing the political involvement of unions is to be effective.

Effectiveness, however, does not automatically make good public policy. In fact, in order to weaken the political enemies of the Conservatives, the government seems to be engaging in very un-conservative policy that will probably produce the opposite of what is intended.

The core question is what sort of institutions unions really are.

The Left sees them primarily as political institutions designed to provide collective economic power for individual workers. A more conservative view sees unions as economic institutions. Rather than being anti-union (that is, relying exclusively on state intrusion to deal with marketplace injustice), a conservative labour-relations policy should create an environment in which workers have meaningful choice to be either non-union or represented by whichever union best serves their interests.

Technically, choosing between competing unions is possible. Practically, most unions have no-raid pacts with each other. Interestingly, over the past few years, competitiveness between unions has increased through the growth of alternative unions, employee associations and other union-like structures outside with the Canadian Labour Congress. Infighting has even affected the CLC.

This emerging competitive environment would suffer most under Hiebert's legislation. Those willing to spend time parsing the details of transactions will use them to make mischief in the campaigns that take place among competing unions.

There might be justification for this if unions were public organizations. They are not. They are democratic organizations that belong to their members. In almost every province, those members have legislatively enforced access to the financial information of their union. If a union fails to properly disclose, labour relations boards step in.

The effect of Hiebert's bill will be to rally union activists who resist free competition among unions. It will encourage them to create mischief against unions that support freedom of choice. It will also give left-wing unionists another chance to raise alarm at how Conservatives really don't understand unions and are out to alienate their base.

Such legislation is shortsighted. It focuses on punishing enemies rather than building coalitions. It will likely prove ineffective in the short term and, in the long term, provide justification for a government led by a party other than the Conservatives to target the in-kind campaign contributions that trade and business associations, not to mention lobbying and consulting organizations, provide to political parties. This will be done in the name of a level playing field.

Most ironically, the legislation's legacy will be increased government regulation and less opportunity for worker choice. The result will alienate the Conservative government even further from those in the organized labour movement whose help is required to develop a skilled workforce and support infrastructure projects. That would be a disastrous unintended consequence, indeed.

Linked to Cardus' Work and Economics research project.

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