The Canadian LabourWatch Association and Its Latest Anti-Union Poll

Last year, the Canadian LabourWatch Association got more publicity than it expected for its 2011 “State of the Unions” poll, after the Canadian Labour Congress filed a complaint with the Market Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) about the poll’s methodology. The MRIA ruled that the company conducting the poll did not violate professional standards, but also found that two of the poll questions were handled in ways that led to the release of “potentially biased” information. The finding of “potential bias” was particularly significant, since information from the poll was being used in Canada’s Parliament to support Bill C-377 – a proposed law that would put exceptional financial reporting requirements on Canadian unions.

Given the attention that the 2011 “State of the Unions” poll received, I was really surprised to randomly discover that in October of last year, LabourWatch released the results of a 2013 “State of the Unions” poll. Most of the media (with the predictable exception of the Toronto Sun and the Sun News Network) ignored the 2013 poll, and that’s probably a good thing – because there are many problems with the poll’s methodology and with the way LabourWatch spun the results. I could spend a lot of time discussing all the problems, but, just in case the 2013 poll results get used to support more baseless union-bashing, I’ll focus on a few examples. (The page numbers below indicate the specific page in this report that discusses the detailed results.)

LabourWatch continues to be fixated on the idea that “working Canadians” want “public financial disclosure laws” for unions, so that unions can no longer hide their “tax-free billions”. One poll question asked respondents how much they agreed with this statement: “It should be mandatory for unions from both the private and public sectors to publicly disclose detailed financial information on a regular basis” (p. 13). However, without clear definitions of “public disclosure”, “detailed”, and “regular” in the question itself, the responses to this question are meaningless – because there’s no guarantee that all the respondents are thinking of the same ideas when they answer.

LabourWatch has suggested in the past that Canada should have union financial disclosure laws like countries such as the US; here is an example of the type of financial disclosure required of US unions. But LabourWatch conveniently fails to mention that it wants Canadian unions to have to provide much more information than other countries require. Before Bill C-377 was amended in the Senate, it would have required unions to report the details of every  financial transaction with a value over $5,000, including the contact information of the parties involved in the transactions. Other than vague suggestions about such disclosure potentially exposing “corruption”, LabourWatch has never really given a credible reason why unions should be subjected to much stricter financial scrutiny than nearly any other type of organization in Canada.

The poll asked a question about union members’ access to their own union’s financial information (p. 18), but the question is framed to suggest that Canadian unions only give “limited” financial information to their members.  Most unions that I’m familiar with provide their members with regular financial updates throughout the fiscal year, and also provide an annual audited financial report. And most Canadian labour laws require unions to provide financial reports to any of their members on request. So union members – who presumably are the “stakeholders” with the most immediate concerns about unions’ expenditures – generally are regularly informed about what their union is doing with its money. And, at least once a year, they have the accuracy of that information verified by an independent third party. Notably, only 12% of the respondents to this question felt that “the Canadian public” should have access to “the financial information of unions operating in Canada”, which makes LabourWatch’s claim that “working Canadians” want this sort of disclosure even less believable.

A frame from one of the Ontario Provincial Police Association's television advertisements during the 2014 Ontario provincial election, opposing the policies of then-Premier Tim Hudak. (credit: YouTube/CBC)

A frame from one of the Ontario Provincial Police Association’s television advertisements during the 2014 Ontario provincial election, opposing the policies of then-Premier Tim Hudak. (credit: YouTube/CBC)

The poll asked respondents whether unions should cooperate with governments in bringing in financial transparency laws for unions (p. 15). This question is preceded by the statement, “In other countries, union leaders joined with their Government to bring in transparency laws requiring unions to make public their financial activities”. Although the statement doesn’t name any specific countries – which is a problem in and of itself, by not giving a direct basis for comparison – the statement is factually flawed. In the US, this type of legislation was resisted by unions, on the basis that it strengthened other legislation which already restricted union activities. And, notably, the US legislation didn’t identify or prevent corruption in some large US unions, thus weakening LabourWatch’s reasoning that disclosure legislation in Canada would “expose” any union corruption here.

LabourWatch is also fixated on the idea that Canadian unions use the revenue from membership dues to “fund attack ads against a political party” (p. 21). While there are certainly examples of this kind of union spending in Canada, LabourWatch provides no evidence to prove that such expenditures are a major use of membership dues for any Canadian union. And it could be argued that unions, like any other organization, are entitled to use their resources to promote political or social interests that are important to their members. (The question also uses the provocative term “attack ads”, rather than using more neutral wording relating to any kind of politically-focused advertising.) But LabourWatch ignores the fact that union members themselves, through voting and through participation in union activities, set unions’ spending priorities. So if union members object to their dues being used to fund attack ads, or any other kind of expenditure for that matter, then they have the democratic right to influence those allocations – a right which has been affirmed by a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada.

And there are also questions that don’t seem to make any sense. For example, one question asks whether respondents agree that “during a union organizing drive, employees should be entitled to obtain information from both the union and the employer on the impact of workplace unionization” (p. 24). The wording of this question implies that employees currently aren’t entitled to obtain this information from one side or the other. In reality, Canadian labour legislation restricts some aspects of union and employer communication with employees during organizing campaigns – not the other way around.  Employees are entitled to obtain information on the proposed unionization from any source they want to consult.

Finally, here’s some other interesting results from the poll that LabourWatch somehow failed to mention in its summary.

  • More than half (54%) of currently or formerly unionized respondents felt that their union dues were “well spent” (p. 20).
  • 71% of current union members would prefer to work in a unionized position (p. 31).
  • 52% of all respondents, and 71% of current union members, believe that unions are still as relevant today as they have ever been (p. 32).

All of these responses indicate much more satisfaction with unions’ performance and actions than is acknowledged in LabourWatch’s interpretation of the poll results.

After more amendments in the Senate, Bill C-377 has been referred back to the House of Commons for further discussion. If or when Parliament discusses this bill again, I hope that any information from the 2013 “State of the Unions” poll used in that discussion is examined very critically and thoroughly. There are many questionable aspects to this poll, and to the interpretation of its results. Canadians deserve to have legislation based on much more accurate and much less biased information than this.

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