The face of English Canada’s largest and most influential labour organization could change significantly this week.
For the first time since 2005, Ken Georgetti is being challenged for the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) presidency, which he has held for the past 15 years. The contenders are secretary-treasurer, Hassan Yussuff, and Public Service Alliance of Canada negotiator, Hassan Husseini.
Husseini, who migrated from Lebanon at a young age and Yussuff, who arrived in his teens from Guyana in 1974, are seeking to become the first persons of colour to lead the 3.3-million strong labour body.
The election takes place on May 8 during the CLC’s 27th convention in Montreal.
This is the first time that Yussuff has thrown his hat into the race to become Canada’s highest ranked labour leader.
“I was hoping that Ken, who had indicated that he was going to retire, was going to keep his word,” said Yussuff who was the first person of colour to be elected the organization’s secretary-treasurer – the CLC’s second highest position – in 2002. “I also believe that it’s important that the labour movement start to build a broad front to stave off attacks from the federal government that has taken it upon themselves to blame workers for the problems they have created instead of acknowledging their own mismanagement of the economy.
“For 15 years, Ken has not done much to mobilize our movement and it’s time for someone else to lead from the front. We didn’t create the economic and financial challenges that we have been struggling with since 2008 and we are not going to pay the price for that. Workers have contributed enormously to their benefits in this country and governments need to be challenged. It’s time workers pull back and say we will not accept blame when all we are trying to do is make a decent living and look after our families. What we need is a bold and more powerful labour movement to resist the Conservatives’ attack on workers’ rights, public services and democracy itself.”
Yussuff joined the labour movement when he was employed at a bus, trailer, railway and aircraft manufacturing plant in the city. In his first year on the job, he became the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Union Local 252 plant chairperson prior to being elected the General Motors Truck Centre plant chairman. He later served as a staff representative in the organizing and service departments before being appointed the CAW human rights department director.
In 1991, Yussuff was part of the CLC delegation that observed the first democratic elections in South Africa and, eight years later, he led a fact-finding delegation to East Timor and made history by becoming the first person of colour to be elected to a CLC executive position – executive vice-president.
Two years ago, Yussuff was elected president of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) for a four-year term. TUCA represents nearly 50 million workers in 29 countries.
Veteran trade unionist Bromley Armstrong, who was the first Black appointed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board in 1980 after serving five years as an Ontario Human Rights Commission commissioner, supports Yussuff’s candidacy.
“Ken has not done enough for the CLC in terms of advocating on behalf of workers,” said Armstrong who was an active leader in the United Auto Workers Local 439 and the Toronto District Labour Council. “I think change is needed at the top and Hassan has the experience and qualities to lead the CLC at this critical juncture.”
The CLC has had seven presidents since the Canadian Congress of Labour and the Trades & Labour Congress of Canada merged in April 1956 to form the CLC.
Marie Clarke-Walker, who became the youngest person and first woman of colour to hold a CLC leadership position when she was elected executive vice-president in 2002, is also seeking re-election.
She is the membership secretary of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) Ontario chapter which has endorsed both her and Husseini who is also a member of the chapter which was launched in November 1996.
“As members of CBTU, your values and vision are in line with our mission to work within the framework of the trade union movement to advocate for Black trade unionists and create a vehicle for advancing the inclusion of workers of African-descent in all spheres of our society,” said Clarke-Walker. “You are committed to challenging right-wing public policies that undermine workers’ rights and perpetuate a culture of White privilege, including conservative ‘right-to-work’ policies, contracting-out practices, back-to-work legislation and all other forms of attacks on labour and workers of colour.”
Clarke-Walker comes from a background of activism and unionism. Her mother – Beverley Johnson – was the Ontario Public Service Employees Union’s first human rights officer and her father – Bobby Clarke – is a Barbadian-based lawyer and Pan Caribbean Congress member.