Ian Lee is an assistant professor in the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. He writes short fiction as a sideline.
Today’s Lee fairy tale is about unions. But not any unions that I know, and I served in a top-level position in one of them for several years.
Professor Lee is a cheerleader for the Harper anti-union bill known as C-377. The bill, even as amended slightly during its crawl though Parliament, is deliberately designed to choke unions with paperwork, and to cripple their lawful operations. It is discriminatory—professional business and other associations where members deduct dues from their taxes face no such requirements—and enforcing the law, which will apply to every union local, component, or parent organization, will be prohibitively expensive—with us taxpayers covering the cost.
Yet if all this is in the interests of transparency, why not?
Of course it is nothing of the kind. But Lee spins his tale thus:
[T]oday a unionized employee cannot easily access the financial statements of the union that represents the employee — although the Rand formula of automatic dues payment authorizes unions to collect union dues — and then spend the employee’s dues.
The secrecy practised by unions — supported by some misguided MPs — smacks of discredited old-time politics that is not reflective of a more open transparent modern liberal society.
The unions strongly protested this bill as some unions are spending monies on issues that they understand deeply — as surely as it snows in Ottawa in January — their members will oppose if it became known.
The unions want secrecy — not transparency — to be able to continue sponsoring activities in the dark without any scrutiny or accountability.
Why can an employee not determine how his or her union dues are being spent?
The truth? Members can already obtain financial statements any time they wish. Seven out of ten provinces actually require that a copy of these audited statements be deposited with their labour relations board. Internally, the documents are readily available. Locals make financial reports to their members at regular meetings, and parent unions provide statements of expenditures from previous years and democratically-set budgets for the future. The latter are also widely distributed at Conventions, which the media are invited to attend.
“Secrecy?” What secrecy? There are few organizations in Canada as transparent as unions. In the PSAC, for example, Conventions decide on detailed budgets, including allocations for the social justice fund and for political action. Expenditures are closely monitored between conventions, at every level of the organization.
Any member who wants to find out what his or her dues are being spent on need but ask, if the information is not already available on-line or on a union bulletin board. Far from hiding what they do (to what end?), union leaders ensure that members know precisely what their union is doing, whether we are talking collective bargaining, grievances and appeals, advocacy, political action, health and safety, organizing, or any of the other activities that unions undertake.
The aim is to keep members informed and involved. As anyone remotely familiar with union organizing knows, you don’t do that by operating in secret. You have the debates, you face opposition, you hash out all of the contentious issues, and you do it entirely out in the open. Attempts by elected officials to duck accountability and to hide expenditures would be met with a hail of denunciation from ever-watchful and suspicious on-the-ground union activists.
It is precisely through this practical day-to-day democracy, rather than the dark, secretive plotting of “union bosses,” that unions gain their strength—the latter being sorely tested at the moment, as we know. Let Professor Lee peddle his mischievous fables: just remind those who need reminding that those monsters under the bed vanish when you turn the light on.