The new leader of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) has laid out a defiant agenda reminiscent of the movement’s golden age.
“We’ll work with governments that want to work with us, and we’ll work with employers that want to work with us,” Hassan Yussuff told the Straight. “But those who want to confront us need to know, we’re going to battle.”
The CLC president—who was elected on May 8 and began work last week—said that in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, labour faces attacks disguised as “austerity”. But he noted that the CLC has survived similar threats masked by different names: free trade, deregulation, privatization, and globalization.
“The fact that we’ve been able to hold it together I think speaks a lot about the resilience of the movement,” Yussuff said. “But the reality is, we need to get out of the doldrums and we have to grow the movement to an equal extent that we did back during the Second World War.”
The CLC represents some 3.3 million Canadian workers. Yussuff, formerly the organization’s secretary treasurer, defeated incumbent Ken Georgetti, who headed the organization since 1999.
Yussuff is the CLC’s first person of colour elected to the position of president. He was born in Guyana, South America, and immigrated to Mississauga where he worked as a mechanic.
In a wide-ranging telephone interview, Yussuff outlined a strategy for growth built on grassroots outreach. He said that the CLC will “fight smart”, ensuring they don’t lose ground on battles won in the past, and that new challenges will be selected strategically. He also explained how he wants Canada’s labour movement to adapt to changing demographics.
“We are still in critical sectors of the economy, whether in transportation, in key resource sectors, in the auto sector,” Yussuff said. “But we have to recognize that both our movement and the workforce have changed tremendously.”
He noted that an increasing number of workers are living in cities, that more attention needs to be paid to aboriginal people, and that immigrants are a bigger part of Canada’s labour force than ever before.
“If you want to see the future, look into my eyes,” Yussuff said. “I’m the reality of this change.”
“This [immigration] growth in our population needs to be embraced, needs to be part of our movement, and we need to be thinking consciously about how we reach it, how we engage them, and how we bring them into our ranks,” he continued. “We need to be aware that this is the future of the labour movement.”
Yussuff emphasized that he does not view the federal government’s embattled temporary foreign workers (TFW) program as a part of that future.
“Temporary foreign workers are not our enemies,” he noted. “These are workers in our country who need to be protected.”
But he argued that the program’s current form allows it to be used as a tool for suppressing the wages of all Canadians.
“There are some minor challenges in terms of skills needed in the country, but there was no justification for the expansion of this program that has occurred,” he said. “We have called, very explicitly, for an end to the low-skills program, and that should end immediately.”
Yussuff offered ideas for improvements.
“What we need to do is broaden our immigration program to bring people in with skills that are needed and, more importantly, give them a chance to build roots, bring in their families, and grow the economy,” he said. “If you’re good enough to work in the country, you’re good enough to stay here.”
Yussuff noted that his predecessor was not afraid to use union pension funds as an “enormous tool” that can influence even very large players in Canada’s economy. He said he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same.
On threats posed by austerity measures pushed by governments and corporations alike, Yussuff framed labour’s struggle in terms of inequality.
“We [workers] didn’t create the crisis in 2008,” he said. “We had nothing to do with it. And so we have to say it loud and clear, we’re not going to pay the price for the recklessness of governments, banks, and financial institutions, which ruined the lives of so many people.”
Yussuff noted that since the economic downturn began, the rich have gained financially while the poor and middle class have suffered the consequences of a retracting economy.
“We’ve got to insist that this equation is rebalanced,” he said. “That’s not an easy thing. It’s a longer-term fight. And it needs to be taken on right across this country.”
Cooperation between private and public labour is needed, Yussuff emphasized.
He described recent rollbacks on labour protection in both sectors as partly the result of a lack of engagement and insufficient mobilization on behalf of the unions that comprise the CLC.
“There can’t be any divisions between private and public sector,” he said. “We’re going to fight together and, more importantly, we’re going to win together. If they want to push us back, they need to understand that there is going to be a huge resistance in this country.”