Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff is stepping down in June after forging relationships with both Conservative and Liberal governments to expand pensions for seniors and wage subsidies to help workers cope with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Yussuff is considered one of the most effective labour leaders in recent times, known for his low-key but effective backroom deal-making.
The union leader is not running for re-election when the CLC holds its annual convention in June. There is speculation within political circles in Ottawa that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might appoint him to the Senate, where he could continue to pursue policy issues.
“It has been evident throughout the COVID crisis that he was so highly respected by the Prime Minister, by all the senior people in government, that he had very good access and that was very helpful to all of us,” Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty said. “Hassan is straight-up. He doesn’t play games. He is somebody who genuinely wants to work to find common ground.”
After immigrating to Canada from Guyana, Mr. Yussuff worked as a mechanic and at an auto parts manufacturer in Toronto and joined the labour movement through the Canadian Auto Workers. Mr. Yussuff is the first racialized person to lead the CLC.
In 1999, he was elected executive vice-president of the organization, then became secretary-treasurer in 2002. He narrowly defeated the incumbent president, Ken Georgetti, by 40 votes in 2014 and successfully ran for re-election in 2017.
“It’s one of those times when you’re able to measure whether the work you’ve done had any value and whether the connections you’ve made with people matter and, more importantly, whether I was going to be judged by my skin colour or my ethnicity,” Mr. Yussuff said.
Once Mr. Yussuff was elected president, he focused his efforts on lobbying the then-Harper government to change the Canada Pension Plan.
Mr. Yussuff said the CLC’s lobbying efforts nearly convinced both former finance minister Jim Flaherty and former prime minister Stephen Harper to expand the pension plan, a policy change both had opposed. Mr. Yussuff said soon after, Mr. Harper changed his mind. The expansion was ultimately approved in 2016 under the Liberals.
Major changes to the pension plan require the agreement of Parliament and seven out of the 10 provinces. “We knew it was a difficult task,” he said.
It took several conversations with Mr. Flaherty to convince him that expanding the CPP was a good idea, Mr. Yussuff said. “I kept saying to him, I said, ‘Jim, you need to read the literature,’” he said. “Finally … he did look at the literature and he said, ‘I think you’ve got a point.’”
Under Mr. Yussuff, the CLC also campaigned for universal child care, wage subsidies, the expansion of sickness benefits and a ban on asbestos. A ban on importing, manufacturing, selling and trading products made with asbestos came into effect in December, 2018.
Mr. Yussuff said his motivation for the campaign to ban asbestos came from being exposed to the toxic mineral years ago while working at General Motors.
“I’ve not seen another labour leader that understands how to use the levers of power to influence public policy the way he does,” said John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.
“Hassan’s leadership in our labour movement … is very much a reflection of the kind of Canada we’re trying to build together.”
In June, 2020, the Toronto Star published an op-ed written by Mr. Yussuff and Goldy Hyder, president of the Business Council of Canada, making the case for universal child care. Mr. Hyder said Mr. Yussuff contacted him and asked what his position was.
“I said, ... ‘You may be coming at it from social policy and I’m coming at it from economic policy, but we arrived at the same place,’” Mr. Hyder said. “He could basically have said to me … I can’t possibly do any work with you because you’re the guy on the other side of the fence here.’”
Chris Aylward, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said Mr. Yussuff brought to the labour movement an ability to work with whoever is in power, even if he disagrees with their politics.
“He knows, in the best interest of the workers, I’ve got to be able to work with you. I’ve got to be able to communicate with you, even though we may not wear the same political stripes,” Mr. Aylward said.
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