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Third reading of Bill C-4, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code, the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act, the Public Service Labour Relations Act and the Income Tax Act

 

Honourable senators, I rise today to add my voice to those who are supporting Bill C-4.

This is an important bill. As has been made clear in earlier speeches, this bill seeks to reverse the harm that was done to unions by Bills C-377 and C-525. Why were they damaging? Bill C-377 imposed an onerous set of restrictions on unions that would destabilize collective bargaining in this country. Under its provisions, unions would be required to report individual transactions — even the receipt of pension money — above $5,000, identifying a host of items such as the payee, the payer and the purpose of the transactions. Unions would have to compile and report to the government literally thousands of payments, increasing administrative costs not only for the unions but for the government as well.

The stated purpose of the bill was to increase transparency, yet it is exclusively targeting unions and excluded other professional organizations such as legal, accounting and medical associations, organizations whose members are able to deduct professional fees on their tax returns as employment expenses. They don’t want to have to do any of that.

It was also redundant. Under section 110 of the Canada Labour Code, unions are already required to make their financial statements available to their members. In other words, unions already have accountability to their membership. If members want information, they can get it by law. There was no evidence that this system of laws and practices requiring union financial disclosure was broken.

Bill C-377 stood on shaky legal ground as well, as I think Senator Jaffer just pointed out. The Canadian Bar Association, when it was commenting on the matter, said it’s problematic from a constitutional and privacy perspective and had the potential to invite constitutional challenge and litigation.

Bill C-525 presented its own set of issues. Under this legislation, any union certification vote held in private or public entity under federal jurisdiction they said must be conducted by secret ballot. There are provisions for a secret ballot, but not in all cases. As was pointed out, while this appears to be democratic on the surface, in practice, holding a mandatory ballot could provide the employer with ample opportunity to influence the result.

We need to be concerned with the fact that since the 1980s there has been a steady decline in the rate of employed Canadians belonging to unions. Between 1981 and 2014, unionization rates fell from 37.6 per cent to 28.8 per cent. This decrease was particularly evident in the private sector, where between 1999 and 2014, unionization rates fell from 18.1 per cent to 15.2 per cent.

I believe it’s no coincidence that these declining unionization rates correspond with increasing income inequality. Statistics Canada reports that from 1980 to 2005, the income of the richest 20 per cent of Canadians grew by 16 per cent, while the income of the poorest 20 per cent declined by 21 per cent. For those in the middle, earnings were essentially stagnant. Timothy Noah, author of The Great Divergence, said something that is very instructive:

Draw one line on a graph charting the decline of union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in middle-class income share and you will find the two lines are nearly identical.

What’s more, honourable senators, it was reported last year that Canada’s top 100 CEOs made an average of just under $9 million a year. This is 184 times the annual salary of the average Canadian worker, which sits at just under $49,000. By lunch on Monday, each of these 100 CEOs will make what an average Canadian makes in a year. What is now 184 times, back in 1980 it was 40 times, a hard-to-believe increase in just three decades. No organization should have this kind of disparity among its highest, middle and lower wage workers. It’s absolutely obscene.

There’s more. This inequality is a threat to our social fabric, and it’s a threat to our social cohesion. One need only look at the political climate of some of our closest allies to see the kind of destabilization that can happen when people feel left behind.

Fortunately, Bill C-4 will assist in limiting the erosion of the Canadian working class. Unions exist to assist workers they represent. The Canadian Labour Congress reports that, on average, union members earn $5.38 more an hour than workers who are not unionized. Women in unions earn an average of 35 per cent more than their non-unionized peers. Young Canadians who are still in school or paying off student loans, buying a home or starting a family, earn 27 per cent more on average if they belong to a union.

What is good for the individual is also good for the economy. A report by the World Bank found that countries fare better economically if large numbers of workers belong to trade unions.

Unionization rates are associated with lower unemployment, lower inflation, higher productivity and speedier adjustments to economic shocks. Yet labour in Canada is moving in the other direction. The emerging “gig economy,” as it is called, has contributed to the growing portion of Canadian jobs that are precarious and insecure. These jobs are usually lower paying, temporary and offer few, if any, benefits.

Research done by the United Way of Greater Toronto and McMaster University found that in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, precarious work in the region has increased 50 per cent over the last 20 years. Taken in tandem with some of the negative consequences of globalization — some are positive but some are negative — this rise of precarious employment will prove a challenge for Canadian workers moving forward.

Yet these are not the only challenges to Canada’s job market. I sit on two Senate committees currently that are studying increasing automation in our everyday lives. Here we are learning the benefits automation will bring. For instance, evidence points to self-driving cars being safer and more efficient. It is hoped that automation in our health care system will help remove menial tasks and allow medical professionals to focus on what they are there for, the patient.

However, automation will also bring with it an upheaval in our labour force not seen in our lifetime. A recent study conducted by the Mowat Centre found that roughly 42 per cent of Canadian occupations are at high risk of automation in the next decade or two.

Honourable senators, this is not some abstract future. Much of this technology already exists and more is rapidly on its way. This rapid advancement of technology has led Professor Stephen Hawking to write recently:

. . . the automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining

Professor Richard Florida of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management put it bluntly when he said:

We are in the midst of the greatest, most thorough economic transformation in all of history.

Our workforce needs to be adaptable if huge numbers of Canadians are to avoid being economically displaced. Government will be central in all of this. Social programs, such as basic income, will need to be considered to adapt to a new reality.

Government can’t do it alone, and the unions will have an important role to play if we are to ease this transition for Canadians.

Unions must also adapt to this new reality and work with government. They need to cooperate with government and employers on adaption to automation and other economic challenges. That is why Bill C-4 is important. Under Bill C-377 and C-525, unions would have been mired in hobbling bureaucratic red tape. They would be harder to certify and too easy to decertify. Put simply, unions would have been made weaker at a time when they should be focused on helping Canadian workers in an economy that is becoming increasingly tilted against them.

It is for these reasons I intend to support Bill C-4 and why I hope it is just the first step in allowing unions to better help Canadian workers adapt to a rapidly changing and uncertain job market. Thank you.