Paying his dues has paid off by taking Hassan Yussuff to the top of Canada’s labour movement.
Starting off as the plant chair at CanCar and at General Motors where he was a mechanic before the Queensway & Hwy. 427 operation where he worked was closed, Yussuff was elected president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) at its convention in Montreal last weekend.
In narrowly defeating Ken Georgetti who was the organization’s leader for the last 15 years, Yussuff made history by becoming the first person of colour to lead the 3.3-million strong labour body.
Yussuff, who migrated from Guyana in 1974, secured 2,318 votes while Georgetti received 2,278.
Public Service Alliance of Canada negotiator Hassan Husseini pulled out of the leadership race during a candidates’ debate on May 7 and threw his support behind Yussuff, who has promised that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will face the full force of the union movement.
“We have been sitting on our hands for far too long,” Yussuff, who campaigned on a platform to reinvigorate Canada’s labour movement, told Share. “My first order of business is to send a clear message to the federal government and employers that the unprecedented attacks workers have been facing will no longer be tolerated. We have had a history of working with governments and employers to resolve issues and we will be doing the same again. If they fail to work with us, we are going to mobilise and do whatever we can to resist the attacks on our movement and we are going to lead the most incredible fight back this country has seen from labour.”
In 1999, Yussuff was the first person of colour to be elected to the CLC executive and – three years later – he was elected secretary-treasurer of the CLC, a position he held until being elected president.
He’s the eighth CLC president since the Canadian Congress of Labour and the Trades & Labour Congress of Canada merged in April 1956 to form the CLC.
Yussuff, 57, said that being the first person of colour to lead the CLC is quite significant.
“It means so much to the movement and the country,” he said. “This is recognition that Canada and the movement have changed and people voted to reflect that at the convention. They did so with confidence knowing they have elected a leader that will work in their interest. They know they have a confident and capable leader who will take this movement to unprecedented heights. I am extremely proud.”
Knowing he was exploited in his first job in Canada that paid $4 an hour, Yussuff vowed to become a union member and make a difference.
He joined the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union staff in 1988, serving as a national representative in the organizing department before moving to the service department where he was responsible for negotiating collective agreements in the Greater Toronto Area. Two years later, he was appointed director of the CAW human rights department.
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.
Two years ago, he 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.
The 2008 recipient of the Bromley Armstrong Award for outstanding contribution in the trade union movement, Yussuff promised that the CLC will be stronger and united under his leadership.
“For the many years I have been with this organization, I have been a ‘uniter’ and not a divider,” he said. “I will work tirelessly to ensure we are a strong movement.”
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, was re-elected at the convention. She is the membership secretary of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) Ontario chapter which was launched in November 1996.