An important shift has taken place in the Canadian labour movement.  For the first time in history, a sitting president of the Canadian Labour Congress, which represents 3.3-million workers, has lost an election.  Six weeks ago, it looked like the convention would be a coronation.  There was mutual agreement on a status-quo slate among the leadership of the major affiliated unions.  A long-shot challenge from a militant, but well-connected, staffer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada shook the CLC leadership enough to expose their divisions.  Hassan Yussuff, Secretary-Treasurer of the CLC announced for President.  When the dust settled, the largest convention in the history of the CLC, with nearly 5,000 delegates, elected brother Yussuff as president of the CLC by a margin of just 40 votes.

Ken Georgetti was the longest serving president in the history of the Canadian Labour Congress.  In nearly a decade in office, he presided over the steady decline of the labour movement, leading it from defeat to defeat.  This is a president who has done his best to keep a lid on any struggle.  At best, striking workers were met with a letter of support, or a lobbying effort in the back rooms of Ottawa.  

For the last decade, the CLC has been relatively dysfunctional.  Ken Georgetti viewed himself as the CEO of the labour movement and organized the office accordingly.  He instituted a dress-code for staff, banning them from wearing jeans or other working-class garb.  Sister Marie Clarke Walker, Executive Vice President of the CLC, was banished to Toronto; she was never forgiven for supporting Carol Wall’s challenge to Georgetti’s presidency at a convention almost a decade ago.  In a move of unbelievable pettiness, Georgetti had her office relocated to another city and refused approval for any initiatives she brought forward.

Take Back the CLC

Only weeks ago, everybody was expecting a boring convention.  There was agreement on a status-quo slate.  There was agreement on every major policy paper and every resolution that would hit the floor.  Nobody was expecting an election.  But years of frustration from the grassroots finally compelled someone to step forward to challenge Georgetti.  Hassan Husseini was a most unlikely CLC presidential candidate, but his campaign to “Take Back the CLC” shook the entire labour bureaucracy.  With so many internal fights, disagreements, and contradictions built up one upon the other, it only took a pin to burst the balloon.  

Husseini campaigned on a platform of rank-and-file militancy.  He slammed Ken Georgetti for viewing himself as “the CEO of the labour movement”, and promised that, if elected, he would restructure the six-figure salary of the CLC President to reflect the priorities of an activist instead of a CEO.  He talked about democratizing the CLC and returning it to the grassroots.  He talked about transferring resources to the labour councils to mobilize neighbourhood by neighbourhood, town by town.  Hassan Husseini presented a vision for the labour movement that went well beyond electoral politics and back-room lobbying.

The initial success of the Take Back the CLC campaign shocked the leaders of the labour movement.  Hundreds gathered behind Hassan Husseini on social media.  He toured the country talking about returning the CLC to the grassroots activists, and putting up a real fight against Harper and the Conservative agenda.  Campaign rallies drew dozens of people, but while many gave him the wink and nod behind closed doors, no national union leader was prepared to endorse him publicly.  Hassan Husseini was completely shut out of institutional support for his campaign.  Still, his spirited supporters fundraised and the little-campaign-that-could steadily built momentum.

It wasn’t long before Hassan Yussuff, Secretary-Treasurer of the CLC, announced he would break ranks and run for CLC president.  He was quickly endorsed by the leadership of Unifor and PSAC.  This made room for Barb Byers to announce her candidacy for Secretary Treasurer.  And this created an opening for Donald Lafleur from CUPW to run for Executive Vice President, alongside Marie Clarke Walker who announced she would re-offer for her position.  Ken Georgetti announced he would run with a full slate of new people.  The battle lines were drawn.

Hassan Husseini was initially met with enthusiasm from a large portion of delegates at the convention.  He seemed to appeal to rank and file activists across the board.  The youth at the convention were mostly wearing Husseini buttons.  He held open caucuses throughout the convention and all were welcome to participate.  The dynamic campaign stood in stark contrast to the rigid structures of the Canadian Labour Congress.  For many, it was a breath of fresh air.

Husseini withdraws

Hassan Yussuff moved steadily to the left throughout the convention.  This was at least, in part, attributable to the presence of Hassan Husseini’s campaign.  Husseini was already having an impact on the convention floor.  From the very outset, his supporters moved an amendment to the agenda to add an all-candidates’ debate to the convention agenda.  Ken Georgetti’s team had pulled a no-show the night before at a forum organized by the Equity Vice Presidents.  Ken himself was chairing the convention at the time, and was clearly caught off guard.  After looking around for help and finding nobody was rushing to his aid, he was forced to put the question to a vote.  Overwhelmingly the amendment passed, setting the stage for an early-morning all-candidates’ debate the day before the election.

Contrary to what others have speculated, the Take Back the CLC campaign had no intention of withdrawing at this point.  Most of Husseini’s supporters were committed to seeing the results of the first ballot, if for no other reason than to gauge the support of the left on the convention floor (something which has never been done).  Over the next 24 hours, that changed. Hassan Husseini addressed his caucus and told them he was going to discuss with brother Yussuff and negotiate a withdrawal if he would agree to four key points:

Host a series of town hall meetings across the country.

Re-launch the CPP campaign with a focus on mobilizing rather than lobbying.

Develop a common strategy among the affiliates to organize the unorganized.

Mobilize a grassroots movement against the austerity agenda.

On Tuesday evening, Hassan Yussuff agreed to incorporate these points into his platform.  Early the next morning, at the debate which would not have happened without him, for the election that would not have happened without him, at the largest convention in the history of the Canadian Labour Congress, Hassan Husseini withdrew from the race.  He gave a powerful speech at the opening of the debate, explained his decision, and then walked off the stage to be greeted by his supporters.  Hassan Husseini inspired hundreds of activists and created an opening for a defeat of the old-line bureaucracy.  Some have critiqued his standing down, but we do not believe that this tactical move was fundamental.  Many have resolved to continue the Take Back the CLC campaign to keep up the pressure.

This is what democracy looks like

The Canadian Labour Congress is not, and has never been, a unified organization.  It would be more accurate to describe it as an organization of organizations.  This is a contradiction that leads to all kinds of convulsions.  While the interests of the working class are more or less uniform, the same cannot be said for the interests of each individual union bureaucracy.  It is easy for those in positions of power to lose sight of the broader picture and focus instead on internal power dynamics and squabbles.  At this convention, steps forward were made in improving the democracy of the CLC, but it is clear there is still much to be done.

Unions on all sides of the equation were busing in delegates for the vote.  They filled buses with members, staff, and anyone else they could justify giving a credential to.  They instructed them how to vote on the way.  Many activists complain about the undemocratic nature of these so-called “rent-a-vote” delegates.  The reality is, this will happen in every election until a constitutional amendment is passed either changing the delegate formula, or moving the registration deadline to the start of convention.  If one union does it, every other is forced to follow suit.

Behind the scenes, power struggles were taking place over voting rules.  The Friday before convention, the Canada Council passed a resolution requiring voting booths on the convention floor.  This, in itself, is a major victory against the establishment.  After losing the vote at the council, Georgetti’s camp tried to block it.  The day before the vote they attempted to change the voting rules again, this time they argued at Canada Council that voting behind the screen of the voting booth should be optional.  This of course, would have outed anyone voting against the direction they were given by their leaders.  This attempt was unsuccessful.  

In the end, every delegate was required to vote at a voting booth, and to show that their ballot was blank before entering.  As the dozens and dozens of members of the balloting committee left the room to begin counting, sealed ballot boxes in-hand, members on the convention floor began chanting, “This is what democracy looks like”.  

And this, in the end, was crucial to the outcome.  Just before balloting was set to begin on Thursday morning, I walked the length of the convention floor, down the centre aisle.  The hall was three city blocks long.  Over four and a half thousand people sat in sections that were uniformly waving flags for either Ken Georgetti or Hassan Yussuff. As I walked across the floor I added up the sections of seats and who they were “officially” supporting.  My estimate put Georgetti’s delegates at about 60%.  So the real question was how many people would break ranks with their leaders and vote for Hassan Yussuff.  The answer: about 10%.  That is what it took to defeat Ken Georgetti, and that is exactly what happened.

The other elections were like dominoes falling.  One by one, Ken Georgetti’s candidates were defeated.  Barb Byers won the Secretary Treasure position.  The two Executive Vice Presidents were taken by Marie Clarke Walker and Donald Lafleur.  Getting a postal worker onto the CLC executive is an important victory given how the postal workers are currently being attacked by the Harper government.

Pressure from below

Hassan Yussuff’s rhetoric grew steadily more aggressive throughout the convention.  There is no doubt that he talked a good game.  The question that everyone is wondering, is how much of it was just talk and how much was real?  Perhaps an indication of things to come, after the election he moved even further to the left.  He opened his victory speech with a warning to Stephen Harper, declaring that there is a “new relationship” with the labour movement and that the next significant attack from the government would be met with a social mobilization “unlike anything ever seen in this country”. At the closing of convention he said, “Sisters and brothers, we’ll see you on the picket lines, at the occupations, and who knows, maybe even a general strike.”  

What do these historic developments mean? With workers facing sustained attacks since the beginning of the global crisis, pressure has been building up from below. The bureaucracy that has consolidated itself at the top of the movement during the quiet times has played a brake on the movement, but this brake cannot stand forever. Sooner or later the discontent amongst the masses is reflected in the mass organizations. The Husseini campaign, despite its lack of an open call for socialism, nationalization, or workers’ control, reflected this desire from the base for change. From a previous position of apparent calm and unity, all the underlying contradictions and divisions were revealed. It is by such a mechanism, a series of progressive approximations, that the leadership of the movement will be renewed. 

This kind of shift to the left in the Canadian Labour Congress will certainly create openings for the class struggle.  The movement has long been frustrated by leaders who refuse to lead.  The capitalist system internationally has lost its equilibrium.  This leads to convulsions all over the world.  It was inevitable that this turmoil would be reflected in Canada’s labour movement eventually.  And this convention puts us onto the path towards a major confrontation between capital and labour at some point in the future.  

Some are quick to declare that Hassan Yussuff will sell out. It is impossible to know how he will act, but individual psychology is less important than what the defeat of Georgetti represents. Yussuff won the vote on the basis of appealing to grassroots militancy and is accountable to this movement whether he likes it or not. What is clear is that Yussuff will now face tremendous pressure from all sides.  He will not only be up against the Conservative government and the ruling class, but also the more conservative elements of the labour movement.  If he capitulates to the right, he will face the anger of rank-and-file workers who have shown that they can replace an out-of-touch leader. After decades of concessions and betrayals the CLC election represents the first step in the renovation of the labour movement. As workers radicalize, bureaucratic leaders will be replaced by new leaders — and if the new leaders do not do the bidding of the members, they too will be shown the door. In this struggle the Marxists will be at the forefront fighting for rank-and-file democracy and militant methods in the movement. Above all we have to win the unions to a revolutionary socialist perspective. Capitalism in crisis cannot provide any real improvements to workers — indeed, all of the old gains are on the chopping block.  Improvements will only come when we make the bosses afraid of losing control of society. In the final analysis, the only way to provide full employment and decent union wages and conditions for all will be when we abolish capitalism. Organized labour needs to take its place at the head of the struggle for a new society.