The new president of the Canadian Labour Congress is vowing to shift the country's union movement back to its more militant roots – beginning with a campaign to oppose Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak in the June provincial election.
Hassan Yussuff was elected president of the CLC on Thursday, defeating long-time president Ken Georgetti in voting conducted by more than 4,600 delegates representing unions across the country. The CLC is an umbrella group for Canadian unions representing 3.3 million workers.
Mr. Yussuff, a former auto industry mechanic who originally rose through the ranks of the Canadian Auto Workers Union, said Friday his campaign succeeded because labour leaders support his call for a change of tactics to become more aggressive toward employers and governments who are eroding the powers of unions.
"They feel the [labour] movement has to pull itself together and start to push back," Mr. Yussuff said in an interview. "There's a sense among the whole membership, including the private sector, that you've got to collectively start pushing back to change the direction, otherwise this movement is going to be in peril."
He said union leaders have long worked at the bargaining table to help solve problems, but they feel they have been too co-operative while watching their gains and legal rights be eroded.
"It's not going to get better if we don't start fighting back," he said.
A first target will be Mr. Hudak, who has pledged to "modernize labour laws," which union leaders fear will mean American-style anti-union legislation such as right-to-work laws that makes union membership and dues voluntary in a unionized shop. On the campaign trail Friday, Mr. Hudak announced he will eliminate 100,000 jobs from the Ontario public service if he becomes premier.
Mr. Yussuff said government leaders like Mr. Hudak must stop blaming government workers for public sector financial problems, and need to work with unions rather than "trying to destroy" the labour movement.
"We'll triple and re-double our efforts in the province of Ontario to ensure he does not become the premier of the province," he said.
One of Mr. Yussuff's first challenges will be to ensure he has united support among his own membership. The CLC's members were split almost equally in their support between Mr. Yussuff and Mr. Georgetti, who led the CLC for the past 15 years. The final tally came down to a difference of just 40 votes.
Mr. Yussuff said he was pleased he won support from both government sector and private sector unions -- as did Mr. Georgetti -- and the membership did not divide along those lines. Prominent union leaders who supported Mr. Yussuff included Unifor president Jerry Dias, Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan and Public Service Alliance of Canada president Robyn Benson.
Mr. Georgetti won the backing of Canadian Union of Public Employees national president Paul Moist, Ontario Public Service Employees Union president Smokey Thomas, United Steelworkers national director Ken Neumann, and United Food and Commercial Workers national president Paul Meinema.
Mr. Yussuff said the voting at the annual conference in Montreal was not a split among members, but a spirited debate that "rekindled democracy" in the CLC.
"They know I've always assisted every single one of them when there's a moment of need, and we will continue to have the same kind of relationship," he said.
Mr. Yussuff, who was born in the South American country of Guyana and is the first visible minority leader of the CLC, campaigned on a pledge to improve diversity and re-engage union members who have become distanced from the CLC.
His career began as a mechanic at a Toronto plant owned by manufacturer CanCar, where he quickly became active in the Canadian Auto Workers union and became plant chairperson after just a year on the job. He later moved to the General Motors Truck Centre as a mechanic, and was elected as the plant's union chairman. After joining the CAW as a staff member, he left in 1999 to become executive vice-president of the CLC.
He was elected secretary-treasurer of the CLC in 2002, where he has remained in the second-highest management position for 12 years.