Hassan Husseini is intent on forming a grassroots wave to revitalize the labour movement regardless of whether or not he wins the Canadian Labour Congress presidential election on May 8.
Incumbent CLC president Ken Georgetti is facing his first contested election since 2005 in what is turning into a bitter and divisive leadership campaign as a three-way race has emerged between Hassan Husseini, Hassan Yussuff and Georgetti.
Husseini was in Winnipeg on April 25 to talk about his campaign and plans to help rebuild the labour movement.
Unrest in labour ranks
Georgetti has been denounced for his reformist and moderate approach to labour movement organising in the Great Recession’s wake, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
A timely letter by executive vice-president Marie Clarke-Walker was leaked stating that Georgetti has been her “abuser” for the past 12 years, excluding her from meetings and denying her from attending or speaking at events.
“I can’t call myself a feminist and look at myself in the mirror as a strong racialized feminist and allow this to continue,” Walker wrote in stating that she wants Georgetti out.
Georgetti has endorsements from high-profile union leadership like CUPE national president Paul Moist, while Hassan Yussuff was endorsed by UNIFOR’s national executive.
Husseini is framing his candidacy as a grassroots response to an entrenched old boys club, and he is causing sparks within the labour movement in the process.
Coercing the labour vote
In a movement that prides itself for being the most democratic mass-movement, labour also has a history of anti-democratic tendencies manifesting themselves within CLC, Husseini says.
Some candidates seeking equity positions are not getting support from their own unions unless they support a particular leadership candidate, said Husseini.
The winning candidate requires a majority of votes on May 8 to win. A runoff ballot can take place if no clear immediate winner emerges in the first vote given that there are three candidates.
Building a grassroots movement
Husseini stressed the need for a grassroots labour movement is needed that can actually challenge neoliberalism and austerity.
“We need victories. There are a number of struggles that we can actually fight and win,” Husseini said, citing the current postal worker campaign and the struggle for an improved Canadian Pension Plan.
“In order to win these fights you need to empower the grassroots, the activists, the base,” he said. “Then we can win and that creates the momentum to become a really engaged movement from the ground up.”
Labour and the NDP
Much of labour is totally integrated into the New Democratic Party at federal and provincial levels despite its ongoing rightward shift over the past few decades.
Many unions have descended into a “corporatist” model where leadership is content partnering tightly with the NDP, and this has fostered a dormant labour movement unable to effectively challenge neoliberalism.
Husseini does not see the corporatist model as the problem so much as the lack of a grassroots labour movement capable of formulating its own political demands.
“We have mortgaged out our politics. We have said you give us the politics, and we will give you the money” Husseini said. “That only helps leaders like Mulcair who has moved the party even further to the right to become a Liberal party. That does not help the NDP and it does not help the labour movement, and I’m critical of both.”
“The onus is on us to define our political agenda and go to the NDP with it,” he said. “The best way we can support the NDP and move them to the Left is if we engage ourselves and are capable of fighting the austerity agenda in a non-electoral way.”
Union politics and pipelines
Tar sands ought to be kept in the ground and the labour movement ought to be leading the push for worker-controlled alternatives, yet some unions support pipeline development.
When asked directly about his position on pipelines and the tar sands, Husseini said, “I do not believe we can stick our head in the sand and pretend that it’s all about jobs and economic development while the environment and Aboriginal rights are being violated.”
“We need to have a difficult conversation within the labour movement,” he said, noting that the CLC has not had broad discussion about pipelines and the tar sands. It is a conversation he would like to have within the labour movement.
Rebuild the labour movement
Husseini has vowed to continue this grassroots effort regardless of the election outcome, working with other rank-and-file activists to start collectively organising from the base.
Regardless of the CLC presidential outcome, the need for a grassroots labour revival is clear. The stakes are simply too high not to rebuild from the ground up.
Matthew Brett is a social justice activist and publishing assistant for Canadian Dimension magazine.