On May 8, 2014, Hassan Yussuff made history as the only candidate in the history of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to successfully unseat an incumbent President. The convention was the largest in the organization's history with over 4,600 delegates casting ballots. In the end, Yussuff won by a razor thin margin of 40 votes, capturing 50.4 per cent of the total valid votes cast.
Why did Canada's labour movement opt for new leadership? There were multiple factors at play.
1. Desire for change
Although Yussuff had served as CLC Secretary-Treasurer for 12 years under Ken Georgetti, he managed to successfully frame himself as the "change" candidate. Yussuff was not offering a shift in ideology, but rather a shift in approach, promising a more open and inclusive CLC that would balance Georgetti's focus on lobbying and slick advertising campaigns, with the type of grassroots mobilizations and direct political action that so many rank-and-file members were demanding.
2. "Take Back the CLC"
Six weeks before the convention, before any other candidate announced, Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) staffer and UNIFOR member Hassan Husseini launched a grassroots left-wing campaign to challenge Georgetti for President and "Take Back the CLC." Husseini was a longshot given his radical platform and lack of affiliate support, but his campaign was gaining traction among greassroots activist eager for change, thus opening up space for Yussuff to throw his hat in the ring with strong backing from key affiliates. Husseini's decision to withdraw from the race in a high profile way by endorsing Yussuff during the all candidates' forum on the day before the vote was dramatic and helped build momentum for Yussuff's campaign by offering one single alternative to Georgetti.
3. Equity seeking groups
While members of equity seeking groups did not vote en masse for one candidate or another, many longtime activists within affiliated unions committed to Georgetti ignored the directive of their leaders and supported Yussuff on the basis of Georgetti's uneven history of support for equity initiatives within the CLC and his attitudes towards equity-seeking groups in relation to CLC structure. The fact that Georgetti refused to attend a candidates' forum organized by the CLC Human Rights committee on the eve of the convention contributed to the sense that he was not sufficiently committed to equity issues.
4. Public sector unions
The leaders of the two largest unions in Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), officially supported Georgetti, but the decentralized structure of those unions made it incredibly difficult to whip rank-and-file delegates into voting a certain way.
Moreover, in the case of CUPE, one of their own, Marie Clarke Walker, ran for re-election as Executive VP in opposition to Georgetti's slate after accusing the CLC President, in an open letter to the Canadian Council, of having engaged in bullying behaviour towards her during her time on the Executive. The impact of the open letter on the election result is unclear, but there is no doubt that a significant number of activists in Canada's largest public sector unions bucked their leaders' directives and backed Yussuff, even if they had been sporting Georgetti buttons during the course of the convention. Most other public sector unions (teachers, nurses, postal workers, and federal public service workers) were solidly behind Yussuff.
5. Informal slate
While the incumbent CLC Executive VPs, Barb Byers and Marie Clarke Walker officially remained unaligned as candidates, their decision not to join Georgetti's slate informally aligned them with Yussuff in opposition to what became known as "Team Win Together" consisting of Georgetti and his last minute recruits: CUPE's Nathalie Stringer (running for Secretary-Treasurer against Byers), Teamster Laurie Antonin and NUPGE activist Kelly Murphy (both running for Executive VP positions against Clarke Walker and postal worker activist Donald Lafleur). As the convention progressed, the informal slate of Yussuff, Byers, Clarke Walker and Lafleur grew more cohesive. They began attending sessions and taking photos together and quite clearly coordinated support for one another on the convention floor and in various caucuses.
6. Social media
While Georgetti's campaign was highly organized on the ground at the convention itself, it faltered badly on social media. Georgetti trailed the other two presidential candidates in terms of legitimate social media presence and followers, which reduced his campaign's ability to win the air war on the convention floor via facebook and twitter. Of particular note, Georgetti's response to Clarke Walker's damning open letter was not circulated nearly as widely as the original.
On the eve of the vote, the campaign teams for Georgetti and Yussuff both bused in hundreds of new delegates from Ontario and Quebec, specifically to vote in the CLC Executive elections. The last minute delegates swelled the size of the convention by almost 1,000 on the day of the vote, forcing convention organizers to significantly expand the size of the hall. In the end, Yussuff's get out the vote initiative appears to have been marginally superior.
8. Strategic backers
Ontario Federation of Labour President Sid Ryan (also a former president of CUPE Ontario) played a pivotal role in Yussuff's campaign, along with key organizers like Toronto Labour Council president John Cartwright and UNIFOR President Jerry Dias.
Ryan was able to garner support for Yussuff from key components of CUPE's Ontario delegation and helped to shake loose committed voters from a broad cross-section of unions by strategically and tactfully taking aim at Georgetti's record as CLC President at the convention microphones during the course of debate.
For example, in a speech that gained him a standing ovation from delegates, Ryan accused the CLC leadership of not having done enough to stand up and oppose the discontinuation of home mail delivery by Canada Post. Ryan's intervention reminded delegates that the labour movement must do better, in order to resist and ultimately defeat the Harper government's agenda.
Larry Savage is the Director of the Brock University Centre for Labour Studies and tweets at @Prof_Savage
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