The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) must continue to adapt if it wants to thrive, recently acclaimed president Hassan Yussuff told rabble.ca.
The acclamation affirms a second three-year term as president at the Congress's national convention in Toronto earlier this month.
Increasing the number of people involved in the movement is his "ultimate priority," Yussuff said.
The convention was organized around four main themes: fairness, equity, green jobs and organizing to strengthen the union movement. But focus is required. "If we're going to take something on, we have to be successful at it instead of just making a loud noise and then moving on to something else," he said.
The Congress needs a stronger movement so it can better address social concerns. Unions don't just work for their members, they also advocate for issues affecting all Canadians, he said. This includes fighting for a $15 minimum wage and improved employment standards across the country.
Advocacy depends on having a strong, growing membership. The Congress needs to make sure it reaches out to workers in precarious employment or minimum-wage jobs, and make sure they know they have a place in unions too, said Yussuff. It also means looking to the future.
"We need to continue to modernize and change our organization because it has to have relevance for our members," Yussuff said. "In absence of that, you die a natural death."
Part of staying relevant means responding to changes in Canada's demographics, he said. "Racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, is a reality of Canada, and we can't ignore it anymore."
For the first time in its 61-year history, three officers at the CLC are people of colour: Yussuff, Executive Vice-President Larry Rousseau and Secretary-Treasurer Marie Clarke Walker. Walker was executive vice-president in 2002, the youngest person and first racialized woman to have that role.
Donald Lafleur was elected for a second term as an executive vice-president.
This racially diverse executive is "remarkable," said Yussuff. But having a racially diverse executive does not mean the labour movement is racially inclusive. He doesn't think the Congress will use the election of a racially diverse executive as an excuse to not be proactive in fighting racism.
"Elections are a wonderful thing," he said, "but we don't see that as a solution to the problems we face."
Along with having a racially diverse executive, the Congress can do more to hire and promote people who aren't white, he said. Members need to be educated about combatting racism. The Congress also needs to continue building relationships with organizations that advocate for racial equality. The convention, with the theme of Fighting for a Fair Future, included presentations from notable activists. Internationally known anti-racism activist, scholar and author Angela Davis addressed delegates. Amira Elghawaby from the National Council of Canadian Muslims participated in a panel discussion about equity. Yussuff said he expects equity will be a focus at future conventions.
Building relationships with organizations that are actively fighting racism is key for the labour movement, said Yussuff. This prevents the movement from becoming divided and shows the rest of the country that unions are fighting for social justice.
"It's an ongoing effort," he said. "It's not a one-time thing. There's no magic here."
Yussuff, who was part of a CLC anti-racism task force more than a decade ago, said he would welcome the creation of another task force to study the subject. The Congress has all the supports it needs, such as a human rights committee, for such an initiative.
Yussuff said the federal government has been attentive to the labour movement and its concerns. He counted the defeat of Stephen Harper's Conservative government as one of the greatest accomplishments of his first term. The federal Liberals, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have not interfered with unions' work, he said. But he acknowledged future disagreements will come. The CLC will continue to press the government for pay equity for women in the federal sector, a national child-care plan and national pharmacare. The Congress plans to intensify its work on pharmacare in the fall, he said.
The Congress will also continue advocating for Indigenous children across Canada, he said.
Meagan Gillmore is rabble's labour reporter.