Building a more inclusive and representative labour movement in Canada

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Hassan Yussuff. (Photo:

This month in Toronto, labour activists will gather for two conferences looking at the challenges facing unions and workers in Canada. First is the Canadian Labour Congress's Political Action Conference, from March 22 to 24, followed by an international conference on Labour Rights and their Impact on Democracy, Economic Equality and Social Justice, hosted by the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights, from March 26 to 28.

Labour reporter Lori Theresa Waller recently discussed some of those conference themes with Hassan Yussuff, Secretary-Treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress, an umbrella organization bringing together Canadian and international unions, provincial federations of labour and regional labour councils. The following is an excerpt of their conversation.


Lori Theresa Waller: The proportion of workers who belong to unions has been declining in Canada for a few decades now. What do you think are the factors behind this, and how can the trend be reversed?

Hassan Yussuff: Overall, union density in Canada is about 30 per cent.

 Legislation clearly helps make the job of organizing workers much easier. In Quebec and Newfoundland, density is about 40 per cent or more. In those jurisdictions, at least in Quebec, they have probably the most progressive legislation for allowing workers to join unions.

 For the most part, throughout the rest of the country, legislation has never been favourable. We have good legislation at the federal level, but in most provinces you have to go to a vote, and that process allows for employers to intimidate workers and threaten them.

Also, when the economy is struggling, people are very reluctant to take risks and join unions because they're worried about getting fired, especially if the legislation's not going to punish their employer for doing so.

We are trying to do many things to outreach and make our movement more inclusive and representative of workers across the country, so they can see the union as an alternative to give them a voice in their workplace.

LTW: Could you give me a couple examples of your strategies for increasing union representation and becoming more inclusive?

HY: There are lots of strategies to bring workers of colour into our movement, to provide space for them to be more actively engaged and assume leadership positions. We're also doing outreach with younger workers, who face some of the greatest challenges in this country in terms of getting decent employment. We're providing space for them on caucuses and executive boards to make them more a part of our movement.

We're also doing a lot of advocacy on issues like temporary foreign workers. These workers are the most marginalized in our society, and they rarely get union representation in their workplaces. Quite often they don't know their health and safety rights, and are living in appalling conditions. We've been spending a lot of time documenting the abuses they're facing and pushing the governments to do more to protect them and ensure they're treated the same way as Canadian workers.

LTW: That leads in well to my next question, which is about how unions are working to either represent the interests of or provide services to people who aren't in unionized workplaces. One interesting example is the UFCW's Agriculture Workers Alliance centres, which provide assistance to workers on health and safety rights, access to worker's compensation and EI benefits, and so on. Those services are offered to anyone who walks in the door, whether they're a union member or not.

Are you aware of any other unions in Canada offering services to non-members?

HY: It's not a universal model yet, but there are experiments going on to work on behalf of workers who aren't members, and I want to commend the UFCW for their leadership in this area. Migrant agricultural workers are among the most vulnerable in our society, so what they are doing is very important.

The CLC has also been a strong critic of the the temporary foreign worker program and we're advocating for better legal protection for these workers. We've seen some good success in Manitoba, and we're working with the Saskatchewan government to try to bring forward regulations that would better protect these workers. We're also holding forums on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program across the country with our members as well as community organizations.

LTW: Labour is facing some pretty big challenges on the legislative front right now. There's Bill C-377, there's provincial legislation curtailing unions' ability to collectively bargain, and there's talk coming from both the Ontario Conservatives and the federal Conservatives about allowing workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues. How is the labour movement going to address these challenges?

HY: Part of the aim of our upcoming conference is to get peoples' attention that these are serious challenges we're faced with, and we've got to take responsibility as to how we're going to respond to them.

On Bill C-377, clearly this legislation has little to do with transparency, it really is an attack on unions. Currently in law, almost right across the country, any financial information of our organizations that members require, they can get that information; it's already provided in law. Bill C-377 is a fundamental attack on the labour movement and an attempt to undermine our legitimacy.

Governments of different political stripes have always tried to scapegoat the labour movement for the fiscal challenges that they create. The teachers in Ontario have little to do with the fiscal problems the government faces, but the Liberal government saw fit to blame these workers, and to attack free collective bargaining. They've got the power and the authority to do that.

So we've got to do a better job of engaging our members to ensure they understand the role we play in protecting their economic well-being, their health and their safety, and giving them a voice in their workplaces. The minute our unions are weakened, all of those things will be jeopardized.

We need to reconnect with our members about these challenges and ensure that they support us in confronting governments who want to curtail our rights, to say we're not going to stand for it.

LTW: I imagine that when you're fighting legislation like this, you also need to win broader public support, since your members are a minority of workers. How do you approach the challenge of demonstrating to people in non-unionized workplaces that stronger unions lead to better conditions for all workers?

HY: I think we also have to do a better job in reconnecting with the public about the greater good that our movements serve.

I'll give you one example. We've been advocating for almost 40 years now about the need to improve retirement security for all Canadians. We're arguing for improvements to the Canada Pension Plan, which would benefit far more Canadians outside of our movement than inside it.

Many of the health and safety laws in this country that protect all workers, unionized or non-unionized, came about as a result of our effort and leadership.

So we agree, we've got to do a better job of communicating with the public on these issues. We're asking ourselves, how do we better tell our stories, over a longer period of time, not just when there's a crisis that confronts us?

LTW: Do you know of any Canadian unions that have created, or considered creating, an alternate membership category for people whose workplace isn't unionized, but who want to be a part of the movement and have their interests represented?

HY: That's one of the things that the Canadian Auto Workers and the CEP are talking about right now as they work to create this new union. They are looking to have people become members who don't work in a unionized setting. I think it's a good thing.

Workers whose values resonate with our movement, but who for whatever reason can't get the union at their workplace, why should they have to sit on the sidelines? By joining a union, they may not have access to collective bargaining representation, but they could access all the other benefits and services that a union offers.


Lori Theresa Waller is's labour reporter. 

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