Nechako-Lakes MLA John Rustad has introduced a private member’s bill that would restrict political spending by B.C. unions.
If passed, Rustad said the Workers Dues Transparency and Rights Act would require B.C. unions to set up a public account for all workers’ dues. Spending from the account would be restricted to core union activities.
“It’s basically day-to-day union activities—grievances, strike pay, negotiations—all the types of things you would expect unions to undertake,” he said.
Over the years, Rustad said B.C. unions have spent more and more money on political donations and other activities that he believes fall well outside the scope of their duties.
For instance, Rustad said this fall the BC Federation of Labour offered moving trucks and free storage to protesters in the Occupy Vancouver movement.
“How is that related to unions and workers’ dues?” he asked. “In my opinion, that is a misuse of mandatory dues paid by union members.”
Rustad said unions are free to join campaigns like Occupy, but they should be required to fundraise for such activities rather than using workers’ dues.
“Many of the members don’t even realize their union dues are going to support those kinds of activities,” he said.
Rustad also said it is unfair that, as registered non-profit organizations, unions pay no tax if they spend on causes such as Occupy.
Although Rustad acknowledged that private member’s bills rarely pass, his follows a similar bill by federal Conservative MP Russ Hiebert that raised union spending issues at the federal level.
Stuart Abels, a member of the B.C. Government Employees Union, said that most members of his union “aren’t overly aware of what their dollars are spent on.”
With 65,000 members, Abels said the BCGEU is too diverse to give dues to any one political party.
“I don’t think unions should be spending any dollars directly on political campaigns, regardless of the party,” Abels said. “And the reason is that I know people I work with who are strong right wingers, and I know people who are strong left wingers.”
Although the BCGEU has no formal affiliation with any party, it donated $157,770 to the B.C. New Democrats in 2010 and at least $112,100 in 2011.
As with other B.C. unions, the BCGEU publishes an audited financial report each year. According to the 2010 audit, the union took in $47 million in member dues.
Nearly half that revenue was spent on salaries and benefits. Roughly three per cent, or $1.3 million of the revenue went to campaigns, coalitions and communications.
Evan Stewart, a spokesperson for the BCGEU, said that every penny spent by the union goes to a vote by elected union members.
“There’s hardly anything more democratic in our society than a union,” Stewart said. “The president is elected, the vice-presidents are elected, the shop stewards in each and every workplace are elected.”
Glen Hilton, a business manager and financial secretary at IBEW 993, said the same is true at his union, which represents electrical workers in northern B.C. and the Yukon.
Hilton said that if anyone in the union suggested they send pillows to protesters at Occupy, the decision would have to go to the general membership for a vote.
Hilton said that amount of money that goes to any causes from IBEW 993 is “pretty negligible.”
Most of the causes the union funds are community groups, he said, not political parties or social movements.
“Who’s going to vote down a food bank donation at Christmas time?” he asked.
Hilton said the Rustad bill smacks of U.S.-style politics.
“The Department of Labour has a huge bureaucracy in place that keeps a boot on the neck of the unions down there,” he said.”They should have been keeping an eyeball on the Securities and Exchange Commission and the banks instead of the people who just run a union.”
The Workers Dues and Transparency Rights Act was introduced Nov. 25, and will be heard on the legislature floor when MLAs go back to Victoria in February.