No apologies: Hassan Yussuff faces down his critics as he retires as leader of Canadian Labour Congress

by David Thurton

Heading for the exits, Hassan Yussuff — leader of the country’s largest labour organization — has a terse message for those unhappy with the mark he’s leaving on Canada’s labour movement.

“I’m never going to apologize for the advancement of the interests of working people,” Yussuff told CBC.

Yussuff, the first non-white person to lead the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), said he’s leaving the labour scene with pride in the gains he’s made and no apologies for his harshest critics. The congress elects new leadership at its convention Friday.

Yussuff, a Guyanese-born Canadian turned political power broker, is often said to have the ear of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Thanks to that access, Yussuff said, unionized and non-unionized workers have gotten an expanded Canada Pension Plan, a ban on asbestos products, the repeal of controversial labour legislation and an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15/ hour.

His critics say that while the CLC may have gained access to the halls of power, that access didn’t translate into real influence over policy.

Too close to the Liberals?

With his departure, those critics say they’re hoping new leaders will more closely align the CLC with labour’s traditional political partner — the NDP.

The Canadian national director of the United Steelworkers said such an alliance could deliver substantive changes for workers, such as pharmacare and higher taxes on the wealthy.

“Having access does not equal action,” said Ken Neumann. “You’ve got to fight to get change.”The candidates running to replace Yussuff agree the labour movement needs to remain closely aligned with the New Democrats.The Labour Forward slate of candidates condemned Yussuff for publicly supporting former Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau for a top position at the OECD.

“His endorsement for Bill Morneau was a big shock and a big disappointment for many people,” said Julius Arscott, who is also running for president under the Labour Forward slate.

Arscott is part of a slate of candidates who say they want to shake things up in the CLC by pushing the organization to confront systemic racism, skyrocketing real estate prices, stagnant wages and international human rights abuses.

The opposing team of candidates, Team Unite, would not evaluate Yussuff’s tenure when asked by CBC News. Still, its leaders are campaigning on a pro-NDP platform that promises to mend frayed relationships in the house of labour and engage with disaffected workers.

“So I feel very strongly that we need to be able to speak to all governments, regardless of what political party they belong to,” said Bea Bruske, Team Unite’s candidate for CLC president. “However, at the same time, the NDP is our natural home.”

Forget party loyalty, says Dias

Unifor national president Jerry Dias said he predicts Bruske will win on Friday. But his advice to everyone in the labour movement is to abandon party loyalties — because they won’t be rewarded.

“The reason I say I don’t have any blind loyalty to any political party is, no political party has any blind loyalty to the labour movement,” Dias said.

He said he’s seen both NDP and Liberal governments adopt anti-union measures, citing the federal government’s move to intervene in the recent port of Montreal strike.

And while Unifor is not a member of the Canadian Labour Congress, Dias said he’s been impressed by Yussuff’s pragmatic approach to politics and his skill at navigating official Ottawa.

“Personally, I think Hassan did a hell of a job for the Canadian Labour Congress,” he said.

‘We’re going to take advantage’

Asked about his closeness to the Trudeau government, Yussuff said it’s paid dividends for the CLC.

He said Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have demonstrated an interest in the problems of working people that goes beyond “platitudes” — at least compared to the previous Conservative government.

“We spent a decade getting beaten by a government who had no regard for the labour movement and for workers in this country,” he said. “And we succeed in defeating that government. We’re going to take advantage of the government that is there.”

It’s been rumoured that, after he leaves the CLC helm, Yussuff will run for the Liberals.

“I don’t see myself doing that,” he said. “I spent a lifetime running for office, which, by the way, is far more brutal than the other office. And the demands of it have been enormous.”

Elected in 2014 and having served two terms, Yussuff, 64, said he wants to spend more time with his wife and teenage daughter after years of splitting his time between Ottawa and Toronto.

As for the possibility of a future appointment to the Senate, Yussuff was non-committal.

“If I feel I can make a contribution, I will seriously think about it.”