Union of National Employees reporters caught up with Hassan Yussuff, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, after his speech at the UNE Convention for an exclusive interview. The following is an excerpt from this conversation.
There is a difference between talking about what you’re fighting against and painting a picture of what you’re going to achieve. If you were going to describe the country that you are working to rebuild, what would it look like?
It would be a fairer country. Working people would be valued in terms of their contribution. The things that matter to working people would be a top priority of our government: good jobs; a better health care system; better pensions so people who have spent lifetime working can retire in dignity in their retirement; a future for young people so they won’t have to live with their parents, so they can have their own place because they make enough money. These are very basic things about any society: feeling it has a purpose and that it is going in the right direction. We’re losing all that. We’re told we can’t have good healthcare anymore because we can’t afford it. We’re told we can’t have good jobs because we live in a globalized economy. We’re told we can’t have pensions because they are way too rich. These are fundamental things and we have to say that we’re all entitled to them. There is more wealth in this period in our history than there was in our foreparents’ when they were trying to create pensions in the first place. We are told that young people can’t expect a full time job or a pension, yet the wealthy seem to have done quite well. I hope my daughter will find this country is a better place than the one I came to. Respect for women’s rights and childcare should be a basic right, not something she has to fight for. Those things are not dreams they can be a reality. We have the money. We can do that. It’s just a priority of the government and a leader to say, ‘hey, do it’. If they can find billions of dollars for tax cuts [for corporations], certainly they can do this.
In your speech, you focused on the benefits that the labour movement has been able to win for our country and for all Canadians. That’s the message that is going to reach people, isn’t it?
I think our role in labour has been about elevating the rights of others, not just ourselves. When we lose sight of that, we lose the public. We have to reengage the public about the good that we do. The other side has been framing us. How are we going to find a way to tell the public that, without us, you won’t get better laws; without us, things don’t improve? The things we fight for are not just for our members; they’re for our whole society.
You talk about mobilizing and organizing for the next federal election. Do you have any specific suggestions for members?
We will organize political action conferences across the country to discuss a common strategy so we can get the message out about what the government action has been against workers. We want our members to recognize that they are not alone, that affiliates can work together. We have to train people about how we can carry on those conversations in the workplace, help them identify some of the challenges and issues that are going to be the ballot questions in the next election.
There has been a trend to drive a wedge between the existing workforce and new workers through differences in the benefits and pensions they qualify for under collective agreements. The rights that each can expect are different for each group. Do you feel that this is a strategy that the government is employing?
Yes, this is a well-known strategy. There is a huge issue with how we build our solidarity with younger people. It is a very systematic way of undermining the credibility of the union. Union members rarely recognize that the employer created this two-tiered system. They don’t understand the context and they blame the union. A massive amount of the current workforce will be leaving in a short amount of time. [The government] wants to change the nature of the relationship with workers and they don’t have many years in which to do it. This attack on rights is saying to the new generation that you shouldn’t expect to get benefits and pensions. Clearly we have to take this on because fundamentally this is about the future of young people.
You mention the exodus that is about to happen. In our union, a lot of seasoned veterans will be retiring soon. Is CLC concerned about how some of the powerhouses of the labour movement are entering retirement?
We are struggling with that right now in the Congress. It’s a concern but I am also confident to know that there are a lot of bright young people coming along. It’s not a detriment to the labour movement. I just think it provides some weaknesses because experience is invaluable as you struggle with these bigger challenges. In many cases we have people who have been around and have lived it and experienced it. But on the other hand, change is exciting. It can lead to renewal and different ways of doing things.
One of our members on Twitter was joking that you are everywhere. And it does seem like you are speaking and travelling quite a bit, even though you were only elected three months ago.
I am always excited about what the next day holds for possibilities. The opportunity to speak is invaluable for our message and there is a sense that something different is happening in Congress. We have an election coming up and I feel that we need to challenge the government’s agenda. We need to confront it and we need to speak about it. We’re fighting a government that is destroying everything. My job is to inspire our membership. Right now, they don’t think they can win. I’m here to help people get out of that rut. You have to make them feel and believe that they can make a difference. There are times when I am going to have to get some rest; but I figure, after Harper is done, there will be lots of time to rest.
Thank you Mr. Yussuff.
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