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Canada could be next for right-to-work legislation, opposition parties warn

Union members and supporters march to the Michigan State Capitol building to protest against right-to-work legislation in Lansing, Michigan December 11, 2012. The Republican-majority Michigan legislature on Tuesday approved laws that ban mandatory membership in public-and-private sector unions, dealing a stunning blow to organized labor.

REBECCA COOK/REUTERS

The federal opposition parties are warning that so-called "right-to-work" legislation that has passed in Michigan could soon come to Canada.

Thousands of people in that state protested Tuesday as the first of two laws designed to weaken union power passed in Michigan's Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Opponents of the law, including U.S. President Barack Obama, say the law only gives workers the right to work for less pay.

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Ottawa-area Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has already been calling for new rules allowing union members to opt out of paying dues.

The proposal is similar to the legislation adopted in Michigan and 23 other states south of the border — as well as a private members bill proposed earlier this year by Conservative backbencher Russ Heibert.

His financial transparency bill, which was debated Tuesday in the House of Commons and will likely go to a final vote Wednesday, would require unions to disclose how much money they spend on political activities.

Critics say it would also create mountains of paperwork for the unions and almost anyone doing business with them, forcing them to file reports including "the percentage of time dedicated to political activities."

Labour groups say it's simply a power grab.

"Unions already provide this information to their members through financial audits, reports, and regular membership meetings," says the United Food and Commercial Workers union. "The Conservatives want their corporate friends to have access to this information so that they can undermine unions."

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said similar laws are already in effect in other parts of the world, including the U.K. and Australia.

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"It really is for the workers to have a good understanding how their money is being spent, so they can make informed decisions on how they vote in the people that represent them," Ms. Raitt said. "It's a fundamental part of having rights."

Even if Mr. Heibert's bill doesn't pass, the Michigan law is likely to eventually have a ripple effect on other jurisdictions, including Canada, said New Democrat labour critic Alexandre Boulerice.

"This will have a huge impact on Michigan workers first," said Mr. Boulerice. "And after that on all the union movement in North America."

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae warned that the Rand formula could be next to come under attack in Canada.

The formula, adopted in the 1940s, makes the payment of trade union dues mandatory in unionized workplaces, regardless of a worker's union status.

"This is about going after, and it's about harassing, trade unions," said Mr. Rae.

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Mr. Poilievre has said he's heard directly from public servants who are not happy with how one of the country's biggest civil service unions, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, manages its union dues.

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