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NDP's Joe Comartin blocks stealth tax on workers

Speaker's ruling derails Harper's latest anti-union attack, for now.

Dateline: Tuesday, November 08, 2011

by Ish Theilheimer

Since they got a majority, the Harperites have noticeably stepped up their attacks on the rights of workers. At Canada Post and Air Canada, the government has used heavy-handed tools to deal with legitimate labour issues, basically making it illegal for workers in federally-regulated sectors to strike. Daily in the House of Commons, the Conservatives attack NDPers repeatedly for their union support.

This fall, however, the Conservatives upped the ante with the introduction of Bill C-317, an Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (Labour Organizations), a private member's bill introduced by BC backbencher MP Ross Hiebert (South Surrey - White Rock Cloverdale), who called the bill the "Union Public Disclosure Bill."

 

Comartin said the proposed legislation was ideologically motivated, with no evidence that labour organizations are not accountable to their members.

Word on the Hill is that although Hiebert claims authorship of the bill, it was written by the right-wing Fraser Institute and supported happily by the Harper government. Right wingers love this bill, which is similar to legislation adopted by many American states. It imposes onerous layers of bureaucratic filing requirements on all labour organizations, on pain of losing their members' right to claim union dues on their taxes. Big organizations would have been seriously hampered by it. Local unions would have found it nearly impossibly to comply.

The premise of the bill was false, but its points were technical, making it hard to argue against a concept like "disclosure," even though the bill represented a sneaky tax grab from workers.

Hiebert claimed the bill would force unions to disclose how they spend money. They already do. Hiebert claimed that unions are receiving massive tax handouts. They're not.

The bill received number one priority from the government and looked like it was slated for rush passage until last week, when House Speaker Andrew Scheer ruled that it had to be withdrawn from the order paper because it would have altered tax laws, a change that can only happen through a government-sponsored bill.

The bill, ruled the Speaker, would have created two classes of labour organizations for tax purposes — those in compliance with the regulation and those that are not. This kind of thing goes far beyond the purview of private member's bills. The bill can still be brought back, but only if the most contentious aspects of it are dropped.

Credit for stopping Bill C-317 goes to NDP MP Joe Comartin (Windsor-Tecumseh ON), who raised a point of order on October 18 after the bill's first reading in the House.

"While labour organizations already abide by financial disclosure rules, mostly imposed at the provincial level of government, they do so because it ensures they are accountable to their members and not just because they are driven by legislation," said Comartin. He said the proposed legislation was ideologically motivated, with no evidence that labour organizations are not accountable to their members.

You don't have to be paranoid to wonder if Hiebert's bill was a government test balloon, albeit one that didn't get the response for which the government hoped. Sources indicate that finance minister Jim Flaherty does not support this measure, probably because there are too many unionized auto workers in his riding. With three and a half years before another election, though, there is plenty of cause for concern among workers.

There will undoubtedly be other attacks, probably better planned, in future. "Unions should be vigilant in ensuring that the Harper government does not seek to remove the automatic dues check off from the fabric of Canada's labour laws,"writes labour studies doctoral student Brad Walchuk, of York University in Canadian Dimension. "Furthermore, Canadian unions must be vigilant in ensuring that individual employees are not given the ability to opt out of paying union dues, as is the case in many southern US states. The effect of this not only severely weakens the political strength of trade unions; it also severely decreases union density."

Phil Haynes of Joe Hill Communications believes the Conservatives will continue to attack unions as long as public support for unions stays at its current low point or continues to decline. "The real answer," he told Straight Goods News, "is not in attacking specific initiatives such as this bill. It is in regaining the public's trust of and appreciation for unions. The challenge is turning public opinion from 'Why do union members get all these good things?' to 'Why don't we all get these good things?' When that happens, governments won't be so free to attack."

"Anti-unionists," he said, "have had a decades-long headstart and put billions of dollars into destroying support for unions while unions have pretty much let it happen by focusing on their short-term goals." The Rand Formula, for instance, has been under attack since the 1970s by the corporate-funded National Citizens Coalition, which Stephen Harper headed in those years. "Until that [unequal situation] changes, things will continue to get worse," Haynes said.

Straight Goods News agrees. And let's get the framing right. What was proposed had nothing to do with disclosure. It was a stealth tax on workers.

Ish Theilheimer is founder and president of Straight Goods News and has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine, StraightGoods.ca, since September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of PublicValues.ca. He lives wth his wife Kathy in Golden Lake, ON, in the Ottawa Valley.

eMail: ish@straightgoods.com  


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