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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.

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.”

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