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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 ...

The restaurant in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel is not on anyone’s list of hipster dining locations in downtown Toronto, but I’ve chosen it for lunch after searching the Internet for a place where the staff are unionized.

Hassan Yussuff didn’t insist on meeting in a unionized restaurant, but his staff says he prefers it when possible, and it seemed like the right place to meet the newly elected president of the Canadian Labour Congress, an umbrella group for Canada’s largest unions with more than 3.3 million members.

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Urbane and slim – he opts for roasted Atlantic salmon, asking for no rice and extra pan-seared vegetables – Mr. Yussuff volunteers that he has been told by others in the labour movement that he doesn’t fit the stereotype of an unhealthy, overweight union leader.

But as he discusses the campaign platform that won him a surprising victory over long-time president Ken Georgetti at the CLC’s national conference in May, there is no doubt he harkens to an era of far more militant union leadership.

Mr. Yussuff’s populist election campaign, which saw him secure the presidency of the CLC with a thin 40-vote margin from 4,700 delegates, was built on his belief that the labour movement has lost ground because it has been too passive.

“Things aren’t going to change simply by remaining silent and going to the bargaining table and taking less,” he says. “I think we have to start pushing back. We have to send a clear message that enough is enough, and we’re not going to accept this any more.”

Mr. Yussuff, 57, had been second-in-command at the CLC as secretary-treasurer since 2002, and had long considered running for the leadership when Mr. Georgetti stepped down.

He initially believed Mr. Georgetti was not going to run again in 2014, and says he was surprised when he announced he would stand for re-election after all.

Mr. Yussuff debated whether to launch a public battle to oppose his boss of 15 years, or look for a new job outside the congress.

“I felt it was time for him to go. I felt the organization could use some new energy and a new direction, given the attacks we were faced with,” he says.

His decision was sealed when he secured the backing of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union with 300,000 members. It was created in 2013 from the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union.

Mr. Yussuff worked for the CAW before joining the CLC, so Unifor remained his affiliated union and gave him a base to start a campaign. (Unifor represents employees at The Globe and Mail.)

Unifor president Jerry Dias says he supported Mr. Yussuff’s argument that unions need to fight harder to stop losing ground in an era of political attacks and companies’ demands for concessions.

“The labour union in Canada has to recognize that we were losing so much of our strength, we were losing respect, and we were losing a lot of our influence,” Mr. Dias says.

Mr. Dias says Mr. Yussuff is “aggressive and articulate, and he’s prepared to do what is necessary to stand tall.” The message resonates at Unifor, where Mr. Dias is now promising to defy back-to-work legislation imposed by governments to end strikes.

“We’re not going to get pushed around any more,” Mr. Dias said in an interview. “So the governments are going to have some very strong decisions to make to figure out how they’re going to deal with a labour movement that is absolutely prepared to defy legislation that takes away our collective bargaining rights.”

Mr. Yussuff’s beginnings were far from the militancy of Canada’s labour movement. Born in the South American country of Guyana, he was one of 10 children of second-generation immigrants from India. His father ran his own trucking company, and while no unionist, was also not a hard-nosed businessman.

“He had a big heart – there was nothing he wouldn’t give to somebody who asked.”

When he was 16, his parents sent him to Toronto at the urging of his older brother, who had moved to Canada years earlier and said there were good opportunities to build a comfortable life. Young Hassan came alone and lived with his brother while upgrading his high school qualifications.

Initially, he says, he hated Canada, missed his family and friends, and was upset by the overt racism he encountered.

“Toronto was not a nice place in the seventies if you looked like me. It didn’t matter where you came from, if you were riding a subway, anyone who looked South Asian was called a ‘Paki’ and people would say it without hesitation.”

But he made friends, and spent evenings working at a movie theatre and drinking with fellow employees after their shifts ended.

“I was struggling with: ‘Is this a place I’m going to be temporarily and then go back to Guyana?’ And then it came to me one day: ‘Hassan, you need to get over this. You’re not going back anywhere. This is home.’ ”

He became a certified welder while still a teenager, and quickly got a job. He just as quickly realized he did not enjoy welding. “It was a lot of smoke, and I thought this can’t be good for your health.”

After asking his boss for a raise to his $4-an-hour pay, and being disappointed with the offer of just 35 cents more, he says he walked out at lunchtime the same day, changed his clothes, and spent the same afternoon applying for a job as a mechanic at Canadian Car & Foundry’s trailer-manufacturing facility.

He was hired on the spot at CanCar as apprentice trailer mechanic with a starting salary of $7.35 an hour.

It was at CanCar that he caught the union bug. After attending just three meetings of the CAW local at the plant and listening to officials talk about health and safety issues, he agreed to stand for election as chairman of the bargaining unit.

He says the older work force, many of them immigrants and Second World War veterans, supported him because he was young and willing to stand up to management. They were nervous about risking their own jobs by being too outspoken. At 18, he was their union leader.

Mr. Yussuff says he quickly realized he needed to get more serious with his life, and that leadership wasn’t about “swearing at managers” on behalf of his members.

One of his early tasks was to persuade provincial education ministry officials to offer a practical hands-on test at the plant to certify mechanics, because he was upset that so many older employees were earning less money because of their inability to write the certification test in English.

“They all passed their tests, and they all got $3-plus increases in their pay, which to me was quite remarkable because they deserved it,” he recalls. “It ensured they were not treated differently from their other co-workers who were doing the exact same work. That gave me a sense that the purpose of a union was to use it as a vehicle to help people.”

His next job was at the now-shuttered General Motors Trucks Centre in Toronto, where he worked as a mechanic and again got involved in union activities. In 1986, he defeated the incumbent plant chair in an election and became head of the plant’s bargaining unit while still under 30.

From there, he attracted the attention of CAW leader, Bob White, who asked Mr. Yussuff to join the union’s staff in 1988 as a young organizer. In 1999, with Mr. White’s support, he decided to run for election as a vice-president at the CLC, saying he wanted to try shaping pro-labour public policies.

“Everybody thought I was nuts – I was in the prime of my work in the union and I had some credentials,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned in life is you’ve got to take a bit of risk, and the CLC would give me a lot of opportunity to learn things I didn’t know.”

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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