Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Canada's Labour Movement Makes a Major Change in its Leadership

By Neil Armstrong

Top officers of the Canadian Labour Congress, left to right: Donald Lafleur, executive vice president; Larry Rousseau, executive vice president; Hassan Yussuff, president; and Marie Clarke Walker, secretary treasurer.     Photo contributed

The Canadian Labour Congress made a historic step at its 28th Constitutional Convention in Toronto on May 11 when the membership elected three racialized people to serve among its four top officers.

After being an executive vice president of the CLC for 15 years, Marie Clarke Walker, a black woman of Caribbean roots, was elected secretary treasurer; Larry Rousseau, a black man of Haitian heritage was elected executive vice president; and Hassan Yussuff, a South Asian man from Guyana, was acclaimed as president. Donald Lafleur, a Francophone but not a racialized person, was re-elected as executive vice president.

This change is reflective of the majority of workers in Canada – a fact emphasized by Clarke Walker and Rousseau.

“This is the first time ever. Having two of us there was historic, having three definitely a day for people to celebrate, particularly when, again, the majority of the membership looks like us. And so, the hope is that we will now be speaking to a majority of workers. That doesn't mean that if you don’t belong to any one of those groups you’re going to be left behind, by no means,” says Clarke Walker.

She said it would also go a long way to pull in young workers who have a different way of doing things and understand the diversity and the intersectionality better than some of the people who have been around for a long time.

Clarke Walker is proud to be a part of this team and if she could change anything it would be to have the gender parity there, but “there are three amazing people to work with that are extremely qualified, extremely good at what they do.”

She is looking forward to the next three years.

Marie Clarke Walker, newly elected secretary treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress and the first racialized woman to hold that position.     Photo contributed

 With 60 days from the elections for the incoming and outgoing officers of the CLC to transition, Yussuff will assign files to his newly elected team.

Clarke Walker says he could assign her anything on top of her secretary treasurer duties.

“All of the secretary treasurers that I worked with had files on top of it, so Hassan had antiracism and human rights, along with political action, labour councils, health and safety he had at one time, so we all have those files on top of our other responsibilities.”

She is happy that that she gets to continue the work that the CLC started in the last three years.

“The last three years have been so different from the 12 years previous, different in the sense that the officers worked together to do a number of things. We had more wins, I think, in the last in the last three years than the entire 15 that I’ve been at the congress.”


Clarke Walker said they came together and decided that they were going to do Canada’s general elections differently with their members.

They crisscrossed the country twice holding different town halls and forums and workshops about why it was important to get involved in the elections to get rid of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“We had to show them that we were on their side and we were prepared to do anything that was necessary to get rid of him and get a new government in.”

She said the difference between the previous ten years and the last three years, in terms of government, was that the Justin Trudeau-led government wants to talk to the labour movement.

“That open communication, I think, has helped to attain things for workers that we didn’t think were possible in the previous ten years. We didn’t really know whether or not they’d be possible even in these three years. But there’s a big difference when you have open communications. You can at least tell people what it is you want, what it is you need, and what it is workers need.”

Clarke Walker said there is never a guarantee that the movement will get everything that it lobbies for but they have been fortunate over the last three years and have accomplished a number of things.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted with Canada Pension Plan (CPP) for example, we wanted a higher increase but we got something – something that was more a 30% increase in people’s pensions.”

She said this wasn’t as important for the CLC’s union members as it is for people who are non-unionized and don’t have private pensions.

“When people talk about the labour movement only being self-serving, it’s far from self-serving. One of the things that came out of the last convention was that we were going to make the union movement more relevant, relevant to the general public and relevant to our members.”

She said when they had the win on the CPP it was the CLC telling the general public that “we have a private pension plan but we feel everybody should benefit from this.”

Regarding the rolling back of the age to 65 for Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), she said a good chunk of the CLC’s members would never qualify for either but “what we’re doing is helping everybody else so we try and be inclusive in what we’re doing on behalf of people living in Canada.”

She does not like to say ‘Canadians’ because there are people who are working here that are not Canadians and should benefit from the work that they do and the benefits that they’re entitled to receive, she said.

These are workers, like the migrant workers or temporary foreign workers, who pay into employment insurance and the pension plan, and don’t get to collect on it.

“Those are the kinds of things that I work on as well so if I only include Canadians then I’m leaving a whole chunk of workers out. We have permanent residents, landed immigrants.”

Clarke Walker said the other things that the CLC have been able to do in the last three years is to be more inclusive – changing the way it does its politics.

“So when we talk about something like childcare, what does childcare look like to racialized families, what does childcare look like to indigenous families? What do environment and green jobs and the whole issue of environmental protection and the green economy, what does that look like? What does that look like to indigenous communities, particularly those communities whose water is poisoned, the land is poisoned? By nature they live off the land and water and can’t do that because poisons have leached into their land so they can’t fish and do the things that they normally do.”

She said the government has said that it is banning asbestos and putting resources into remediation for government buildings.

The new secretary treasurer wants all buildings done, particularly in indigenous communities where buildings such as houses and community centres are laden with asbestos.

“When we were doing politics on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade agreements we talked about those trade agreements that the government signed tend to hurt poor communities, racialized communities, indigenous communities.”

She said within the labour movement, one of the things they did was to not just talk about the inclusion of all of those things, but to sit down with their equity working groups and look at “how do we infuse equity into every single thing we do.”

One of the other things they have worked on in the last three years is the area of mental health, looking at it not just from the perspective of getting people with mental illness into the work place but also how a person’s mental health can be affected at work through racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other things.

“While the labour movement has done some work on mental health, it’s usually from a health and safety perspective, accommodation perspective, and again within the last three years we flipped that on its head and said let’s look at this from a rights-based perspective. One of the new working groups we have is a mental health working group looking at all of that.”

They launched a mental health online resource at the convention. It looks at a number of areas and helps people who need assistance whether on the shop floor in the workplace, or looking for resources in their community, or seeing what their union has that deals with mental health.

Clarke Walker says she can see that the labour movement is becoming more relevant to the general public.

A group of organizers -- all women -- from Hamilton that local councillor, Matthew Green, coordinated attended the convention all week to see what the CLC does.

She said people hear all kinds of negative things about unions and one of the things that she tells people is that “unions are more than picket lines and strikes, we are involved and do things that people wouldn’t think that we do.”

The CLC also did a lot of work on welcoming and resettling refugees.

“While everybody was focusing on the Syrian refugees we also talked about the Eritrean refugees and the refugees that were coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. So, lots of stuff that we do that the general public have no idea, and again, I want to be able to continue that, grow the movement because I know when you work in collaboration with others as a collective your voice is stronger, the resources go a lot further and so I want to continue to do all of that collaboration, not just in the union movement but also with community groups.”

Rousseau was first elected regional executive vice president for the national capital region of the Public Service Alliance of Canada in June 2011. He was re-elected for a second term in May 2014.

“It means that many people are going to say that it is a good thing that the leadership of the CLC is going to be particularly sensitized to the way labour presents itself to workers of colour. And, if workers of colour are seeing themselves in leadership positions in the union movement, and this is a beginning because the labour movement increasingly will have to reflect the workers that it serves, just like government, and in that case well, I think this is a good thing and I think that we’re on the right track.”

Previously, he was a regional vice president with the Union of National Employees, and an employee of Statistics Canada.

Rousseau’s first experience in the labour movement was when he started as a filing and stockroom clerk in the mailroom of the Canadian Labour Congress at the age of 18. 

Asked if he had aspirations then to be in the leadership of the CLC, he laughed and said, “I don’t think I ever did.”

“I think I might have dreamed about it sometimes or simply said, you know sometimes how we think we might win the lottery or sometimes we might say wouldn’t it be nice to have such. I think that, realistically speaking, to rise to the position that I am in right now takes a lot more than luck. 

“It takes a lot more than dreaming. It takes a lot of perseverance, and more especially, it takes a great amount of trust so that the various affiliates that are very important players in these affairs come around to say what kind of a person is this, does this person have the experience, will this person be able to do the work, etc. I’m just very humbled at this point but very proud.”

Rousseau said the CLC has to be instrumental in making sure that workers of colour will be able to integrate and join into unions, which also have their culture of exclusion, just by the very definition of trade union.

He said these kinds of things have to be dealt with and he thinks that the leadership team will work together.

Shortly after working at the CLC, he was elected shop steward for the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 225 (now COPE). 

His involvement in the GLBT, peace and social activist movements has been an integral part of his engagement and commitment for social justice. 

Rousseau’s parents were from Haiti and he said that they would have been extremely proud if they were alive today. 

They raised all their children with progressive values, and he noted that his parents were pro-trade union and were very happy when he was working at the CLC.

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