Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the umbrella organization which encompasses dozens of affiliated unions and represents over three million workers. In February, the CLC launched its election preparedness campaign, which seeks to mobilize union members to defeat Harper’s conservatives in the upcoming federal election.
I spoke with Yussuff about what we can expect from the campaign’s second phase, which is set to start in the upcoming weeks. This interview has been edited and condensed.
The last time I spoke to you was at the election preparedness conference, when you were on national tour kicking-off this campaign. Can you tell me a little bit about what the labour movement has been doing since then in anticipation of the election?
The tour was critical to engage members about the importance of the election and to mobilize them to participate in terms of voting, but more importantly to start having conversations with their fellow colleagues at work about what’s at stake in this upcoming election.
The four priority issues that we have prioritized to discuss are health care, child care, retirement security, and jobs. And we hope those issues will motivate our members as they go to the ballot box.
We’ve asked people to do three very basic things: One is to bring the message back to their workplace, to their families, to their friends, wherever they can. Two is to recruit one additional person to come to the next event and participate in this event. Three is to find a candidate that they can volunteer their time with. If the election is going to make a difference they’ve got to commit some effort to supporting people in their community who they feel very strongly about, including the NDP candidates that we would prefer.
And we are going to check back with them as we get ready for the tour we are about to launch. We are hoping that will start in the next couple of weeks and we’ll be back on the road again.
And what will that tour entail?
We’ve titled it ‘Time for a Change’, we’ve got some new materials that we are rolling out that will help our membership with this conversation, building of course on the materials that we produced the last time. And we’ll continue our work to help our members have that conversation in the workplace with their co-workers. But it’s also a chance for me to listen to them directly about how the work has been going that we’ve asked them to do. What are the strengths and the weakness of the work, and how can we assist them.
And of course hopefully we can motivate our members to keep going to the next period. We are hoping that we’ll have another opportunity to connect with them. We have a major opportunity on Labour Day across this country to connect with all our members as we plan events, and we are looking at how we can do that in a very positive, focused way that will remind members that it’s in their hands to determine the outcome of the next federal election. We can make a significant difference.
Would you say that the CLC is taking a different strategy in this campaign than in previous elections?
It is the most radical departure that we’ve had from previous elections. We are more hands-on engaging our activists and leadership on the ground with some very clear direction and priority ballot issues that we want our members to be considering when they go and cast a vote. And two, of course, motivating them about the necessity to engage their fellow union members, their friends, their neighbours, and anyone they can influence at the end of the day about the importance of voting, and more importantly about the need to elect a progressive government at the coming election in October.
I think there’s this expectation that most union members are already progressive, but that’s not exactly the case, is it?
No. Our members, to a large extent, reflect public attitudes and public values and it is our job at the end of the day to engage them in way to look at their self interest, but more importantly to think about the future of the country. Because this is what they are going to be voting on when they do cast the ballot in October. They are going to be voting for the future of the country that they want to live in, and the kind of values that I think they embrace in their unions on a day-to-day basis.
And we are hoping, in the way that we are approaching it, not to demonize those members who may be in a different place, but asking: how can we have an intense conversation with them? Part of our membership has voted Conservative and we don’t need to deny it, we need to accept it. And try to figure out how we are going to engage them in a conversation that will change their thinking.
Do you think that the issues you are talking about — health care, jobs, child care, and retirement security — will resonate with non-unionized Canadians as well?
Well, we think that these are bread and butter issues. No matter where you’re at, and I’ve gone across this country now. Since last October, I’ve been on the road non-stop. And no matter where I go, Canadians accept that these are the most fundamental issues that they see at this current time.
The government loves to tell us how great the economy is going. But in many cases, there is over a million people who are working two jobs to make ends meet. There are some places in parts of the GTA area where people are working three or four jobs to make ends meet because they can’t find regular full-time jobs.
Our members are very much aware that these are bread and butter issues that we are talking about. And it is fairly well known, their ambivalence, their concern. Our job is to reconnect them to the fact that government has a significant role to play in their lives. This government has been absolutely determined and mean in its policies toward working people and equally so toward the labour movement.
What are the next steps?
Next step is to keep the conversation going through the work that we are asking our members to do. Our members need to take some ownership of the fact that they can make a difference. They need to commit to go and vote because again, too many of our citizens don’t vote in elections. And we need to connect to the youth in this country and work in broad coalitions. And most importantly, we need to bring some hope to this campaign: we can do better and we can have a more vibrant country where all Canadians are sharing in the fruits of our labour, and that nobody is left behind.
Regardless of who gets elected, these issues will still be there immediately after the election is over and we are going to have to push whatever government gets elected and I’m hoping with the activist base that we are building on the ground, we’ll have the capacity to push the future government of this country to act on these issues.
Ella Bedard is rabble.ca’s labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.