The labour movement is challenging, it is not a monolithic organization."Hassan Yussuff
By Neil Armstrong
Hassan Yussuff and I are being led to a table in a restaurant at the Sheraton Centre in downtown Toronto on the last day of October, where I am about to interview him about his achievements in the labour movement.
As we walk toward the table, a worker from the eatery greets him and he stops to chat; he does so again with another before we reach our table.
This is nothing new to the man who was elected president of the Canadian Labour Congress at its convention held in Montreal in May 2014 – the largest in the history of the CLC, attracting 4700 delegates – defeating the incumbent, Ken Georgetti, who had been the president since 1999.
He is honoured to have been a working class immigrant kid who came to Canada and has risen to this position.
Yussuff has a story in his head that guides him – it becomes his compass – as he represents the interests of working people.
“I always think of that old woman who works in a hotel that cleans the room. She’s about 60 years of age. She comes in day in and day out and does her work. And, when I get to go to a meeting to be with a premier or prime ministers, or whoever, whatever positions they hold in this country, my job is to anchor my belief that that woman is who I represent every single day in my work,” he says.
This inspires him to do the best for her and the 3.3 million Canadian workers represented by the CLC, the national voice of the labour movement.
The CLC brings together Canada’s national and international unions along with the provincial and territorial federations of labour and 111 district labour councils.
Yussuff was first elected secretary-treasurer of the organization in 2002, after serving as an executive vice-president since 1999 – the first person of colour elected to an executive position. Previously, he was national human rights director of the Canadian Auto Workers union, now UNIFOR.
He was born in the east coast of Guyana, a place called Noire suit, 18 miles from Georgetown overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
He describes it as a beautiful village, very multicultural, where everybody loved everybody and got along well.
At the urging of his older brother, who lived in Toronto, Yussuff immigrated here in 1974 at the age of 16.
As a teenager, it did not excite him to leave his parents, other siblings and friends but he took the advice of his father, something, he says, that in retrospect was the best advice his dad could have given him.
Shortly after he arrived in Canada, he went to Humber College for about a year and then took a wielding course, achieving a certificate.
He worked in wielding for a while but discovered that he did not really like it so he moved on to a trailer manufacturing facility, where he became involved in the union there, describing it as the best thing he ever did.
After his probation, he got involved in the union, at the age of 18, because a worker invited him to a union meeting held on Sundays in the Runnymede and St. Clair area.
Initially, he ignored the invitation but changed his mind after his coworker persisted.
“What struck me about the conversation, he never judged me. He didn’t ask me what prevented me from coming to the meeting.”
He remembers riding his bicycle to the union hall and sitting in the last row to listen to what the men – it was mostly men -- were talking about. It intrigued him. They were talking about health and safety and issues with the managers, among other things.
The plant chair was leaving for another job and approached him to run for his job. Dumfounded, Yussuff was hesitant but after being convinced that he could take on the role because he had stood up to supervisors when they were bullying people around, he did.
He eventually applied to General Motors, which was hiring apprentices for the position of motor vehicle heavy-duty mechanic and got the job.
“I was also very much intrigued about the union work. I decided that I needed to get back into the union work because I liked it. I was hooked on it. I had not finished my one-year service in General Motors, there was a vacancy for shop steward and I decide to run.”
Yussuff ran but did not win; he lost by four votes but thought that he had a future there and so he stuck with the union helping wherever he could.
Eventually, he got elected at GM and became the chairperson of the union at a time when he was already “a full-time activist in every way.” He was an anti-racism activist in the 1970s, pushing and agitating the labour movement on all kinds of matters.
Working as a chairperson at one of the largest corporations opened lots of possibilities for him.
“I had to learn new things. I had to grow and that led to bargaining with General Motors in 1987. We concluded our negotiation with General Motors and it was extremely good.”
Shortly after that, Bob White, president of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), called Yussuff to ask if he would consider joining his staff as an organizer.
The union at the time was 140,000 workers and he was intrigued that as a young person of colour he was being invited to join the staff of the CAW.
He joined the CAW’s organizing department where he worked for four years talking to workers, trying to convince them to join the union and he was successful in helping to recruit thousands of members.
When Buzz Hargrove became president of the union in 1992, there were many human rights issues in the CAW and he discussed with Yussuff the creation of a human rights department in the organization.
Yussuff did not think he was the man for that job because his work as an agitator was different from what was required in human rights.
He told Hargrove that human rights work, as he knew it, was not easy.
“It sucks the soul out of you because you’re dealing with people and their hurt, and their feelings and frustrations and all the things they go through. And when they call you, at the end of that phone is a person they think can make a difference,” he says.
Hargrove wanted him for the job and persisted so Yussuff asked: “Why is it that you think it should be me?”
The reply was: “If we’re going to solve the problem in our union, I need somebody who had the experience. You came out of the ranks, you are a negotiator; you are a union rep in the workplace… I need somebody who has gone through all of that.”
He became the human rights director for about five years and then in 1999, he was elected as the vice president of the CLC, which lasted for three years.
In 2002, at one of the largest conventions in the history of the CLC in which 3,300 delegates participated in Vancouver, he was elected secretary-treasurer, which lasted for 12 years.
“The labour movement is challenging, it is not a monolithic organization. There are always issues that’s going on, a hostile government, employers to deal with and we’ve got to navigate constantly how we deal with all of these issues recognizing that our desire is to represent the interest of working people.”
Yussuff says things are that much more difficult when there is a hostile government, like the one led by Stephen Harper, trying to take away things the union has won or attacking the things that are very basic and fundamental to workers in Canada.
He says the labour movement is a reflection of society; it is not different. The membership comes from the ranks of the citizens of this country and it is critical, in the context of an institution that represents working people interests, that the CLC should reflect working people of many different cultures in its organization.
“I think its fundamental for me that it reflects that reality. So, the diversity of leadership is critical, both women and people of colour and men, need to be reflected in that.”
Yussuff says when he became the first racialized president, he was very conscious that when he traveled across the country and in communities, and talk to workers, they can see themselves reflected in him – both their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations -- that at some point, some day, they can do the same thing.
“I also think that I put a face to the labour movement that is necessary and needed. Canadians need to see the labour movement as not monolithic and white; they can see it as broad and as diverse and I think that I reflect that reality.”
As someone who came to Canada as an immigrant, he recognizes that there are still far too many challenges and many people not having the opportunity, when he can use his voice to speak about the need for change and the need to be a more inclusive society.
He says there is also the reality that the country has changed and will continue to change, and if the labour movement wants to have a future it will have to embrace diversity, more so than it has in its history.
The union leader says he is very conscious that he holds a mirror up to himself and he is not shy to talk about his immigrant past, being a person of colour, and that he brings a perspective that is different than that of his predecessor.
In an open letter to the Canadian Labour Movement in his bid to become president of the CLC, Yussuff called for “a return to the offensive for rights and progress for workers after decades of retreat and decline.”
A big believer in naming the problem to fix it, he says governments and employers have been pushing back on workers in this country and the labour movement has lost some ground.
Regarding the offensive, he says the movement has to be far more aggressive.
“There are far too many people in our country that go to work day in and day out and still can’t make enough money to look after their families and meet their basic needs. I think that’s unacceptable.”
Even though Ontario has increased minimum wage, he says, the minimum wage is far too low when compared to the cost of living for working people in Toronto.
Yussuff says there are over one million people in Canada who go to work daily and are making minimum wage.
He says the CLC will extend a hand to governments that want to work with it to try and move that agenda forward. However, for those who want to roll back the gains the labour movement made, the CLC will confront them.
On the matter of the need for a new labour movement and wanting to lead a more inclusive trade union, Yussuff says union culture can evolve and change if there is a recognition that it needs to evolve and change.
Yussuff says he will do everything he can to ensure that the Canadian Labour Congress is as diverse as it can be, in terms of it’s staffing.
“On the broader political challenges and issues that are facing us to become a more inclusive society, we’ve got to be much more vocal in speaking out, whether its on the question of marginalization around work, in general, where mostly people of colour end up in the economy.”
He notes that the traditional aspect of the labour movement has to change, in terms of how it gets its message out.
“We have to be much more politically conscious that the milieu in which you try to get your message out is not the only vehicle for us. We’ve got to do more to work with community media and the diverse media that exist in this country.”
He also believes that the labour movement needs to be involved in the broader work that goes on in communities across Canada.
The CLC president says the labour movement has to be front and centre on issues around marginalization of young kids or young black kids in Toronto who are facing extremely difficult unemployment.
He acknowledged that some good work to create opportunities for young black men and women to become apprentices in the building trades is going on with the Carpenters, International Brotherhood of Electric Workers (IBEW), and other unions, but more of it is needed.
“I think what we need our members to see is that we’re simply more than just representing them in the narrow context of collective bargaining. They have to see us as a labour movement socially committed to the broader issues that they are struggling with in their lives.”
When he gets a chance to be away from work, he loves jazz although he admits to not getting enough time to listen to it anymore.
He also loves cultural events and going to the movies but all of the movies he has seen are while he is in flight.
Apart from traveling for work, he enjoys traveling for leisure and discovering places and observing different cultures and people.
Describing himself as a health fanatic, he is always trying to get into the gym – something he doesn’t get enough time to do on a regular basis.
“The thing that’s most joyful for me is to spend time, both with my partner and my young daughter. I don’t get enough time to do that,” he says, noting that it stresses him enormously because his daughter is six and parents are important at that stage of her life.
Having travelled to cities around the world and throughout Canada, he has a particular love for Toronto, his home.
“I think there’s a soul in this city and it sort of attracts me every time I come. I love just walking in neighbourhoods and discovering restaurants or coffee shops or going for a drink.”
Although the job of president is incredibly demanding with his phone on almost 24 hours of the day, seven days a week, he says there is never a dull moment.
“I’m truly an optimist in life. I always believe if it didn’t happen today, tomorrow I will change the world. I wake up believing that’s possible and the job is an opportunity to do good on behalf of working people. I’m truly blessed in being given the opportunity to do this and at some point it will come to an end.”
He was elected president of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) in 2012 for a four-year term. TUCA represents more than 50 million workers in 29 countries.
A couple days after our interview, Yussuff flew to Brazil for a meeting – never a dull moment indeed in the life of the leader of the national voice of Canada’s labour movement!