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Hassan Yussuff, president, Canadian Labour Congress (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Hassan Yussuff, president, Canadian Labour Congress (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Lunch

Union roots run deep for Canada's new face of labour Add to ...

Mr. Yussuff says public policy reform remains a key interest of his and a priority for the CLC. One of his plans this year is a renewed campaign seeking the expansion of the Canada Pension Plan to provide more income to workers in retirement.

He acknowledges there is a wide swath of the general public that does not support the union movement, resentful of higher wages and superior benefits. He says the union movement needs to do more to sell its merits.

The fact that unionized workers earn more on average means unions are serving society by reducing inequality and helping Canada sustain a vibrant middle class, he says, which is critical in an era when many jobs are turning into insecure contract positions in low-paying service sectors.

“Rather than blaming other workers who have a pension, the fundamental question should be: ‘How do we ensure all workers have a decent pension when they retire?’ ” he says. “We’re committed to making this happen.”

Mr. Yussuff also argues unions need to more actively challenge governments that are unfairly “blaming” public sector workers for past financial problems, and are “making them pay” by slashing civil service jobs and reducing public services.

“[Their] message is that we have to sacrifice more in order to somehow improve the economy. I think it’s fundamentally a falsehood.”

He remains committed to labour’s traditional support for the New Democratic Party, saying it is still the party most concerned about protecting workers’ rights.

But when it comes to telling union members how to vote, he argues pronouncements don’t work with a diverse membership. The best approach, he counsels, is to talk directly to members about why certain candidates do – or do not – warrant support.

“Simply making a statement from high above is not going to do very much to assist our members in sorting out who best represents their interests,” he says.

Mr. Yussuff says he will be on “more picket lines than anybody in the history of the congress.” He joined striking workers on several picket lines in British Columbia and Ontario during his first few weeks on the job.

He shows no signs of fatigue at lunch as he details a whirlwind week that included meetings, speeches and picket-line appearances in Vancouver, the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.

“I’m different – I don’t mind going to people’s events. I think it’s fun and kind of exciting,” he says. “I’m known for hard work and long hours. That part doesn’t bother me.”

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Hassan Yussuff, 57

Family: Married to Jenny Ahn (who works for Unifor), with one child, Sarah, aged 5.

Travel: Just spent a low-stress week in Paris with his family. Avoiding art galleries and museums, he says they mostly sat on a blanket in the park.

Interests: Jazz, running

Beliefs: Born to Muslim parents, but is not religious. He believes his purpose is “to make this country and world a more equal place.”

Motto: He describes himself as an unshakable optimist. “I fundamentally believe the next day is the day you’ll change the world.”

On the tensions of a job that requires him to both oppose and lobby Ottawa’s Conservative government: “I don’t think we have the luxury to not talk to people we have difficulty with. I think you have to talk to them more.”

On his views about unions telling workers how to vote: “I think it would be rude and disrespectful of me to make a bold statement to tell people what to do. I don’t think it takes into consideration our members actually have the capacity to think for themselves and come to the right conclusion about the decision on their behalf.”

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