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Interview: Hassan Husseini and the Canadian Labour Congress


April 27, 2014

 
For the first time in nine years the leadership for the Canadian Labour Congress, the umbrella organization for over 2.5 million union members in Canada and Quebec, is being contested. Socialist.ca’s Ritch Whyman interviewed Hassan Husseini, who is running a campaign based on building a fighting labour movement. 
 
There hasn’t been a challenge to the Georgetti slate or its method of operation in almost nine years, so why run now?
Well firstly for that exact reason, that there hasn’t been any challenge since 2005 and its about time somebody not only challenge him but also the leadership of the CLC on the basis of politics, on the basis of a plan to move workers forward. It’s been the same old, same old as far as the leadership is concerned yet the magnitude of the attacks and the visciousness of the onslaught against workers has reached unprecedented heights.
 
I feel there is at a bare minimum the need for there to be a discussion and debate about what we need to do to confront the challenges of the austerity agenda. That’s why I put my name forward to engage in the debate, to help provide a democratic alternative at the level of leadership. In my assessment and the assessment of many who are supporting the campaign there is an appetite out there to do things differently, to rebuild the movement on a militant basis.
 
The problem with the CLC and any central labour body for that matter is how do you overcome the opposition or apathy of some of the unions leaderships in wanting to do anything that changes the status quo, that sees the glass as half full and is content to slowly watch the water evaporate.
This is a dilemma. I think right now there are many unions and leaderships who want to do things, but don’t see the CLC as a body where you can co-operate to launch effective common campaigns around common issues. The irrelevancy and ineffectiveness of the CLC has left more and more affiliates to step back, pay their dues and view the CLC as an organization that at a minimum is an organization that puts out TV ads. If we rebuild the CLC on a democratic basis, engage the affliated unions memberships, and make the specific issues they may face the issues of the whole labour movement, we could  build a concensus about campaigns we could all buy into.
 
But ultimately we will always have some leaderships and unions that won’t want to go forward, and at the end of the day you have to lead and whoever comes with you, and I think the majority of trade unionists would come with us. But winning the leadership of the CLC isn’t going to be the end all and be all, everyone isn’t going to be radicalized and get it and move into action immediately. Part of the campaign is about supporting the power of the rank-and-file and empowering the grassroots to pressure their leaderships to move into action. Even if some leaderships aren’t doing much, if they feel the pressure of the rank-and-file speaking out and fighting against concessions and against the same old routines, that’s what will make them change their tune.
 
What is lacking at the CLC is leadership, they’ve abandoned the role they were elected to do in the first place; and this is where if my campaign wins things will change. There would be more respect, more engagement, more consultation with all levels of leadership, where hopefully the politics of unity will take over and replace the politics of division and behind closed doors deals.
 
So in essence do you feel that by running a campaign for leadership with the politics that you have actually opens more space for militants and activists inside their own unions to push for a more fighting agenda?
Absolutely, there are spaces we have to rebuild as militants and activists. The Labour Councils are, in my view, the basic units within the labour movement. Sadly they have been disenfranchised, demobilized and sadly in most no longer the centres for political action and mobilization and cross union solidarity that they used to be, with a few notable exceptions. To me that would be the place to recreate activism again. The campaign against Hudak shows that it is possible to rebuild that cross-union local solidarity. This is vital for the labour movement.
 
Unfortunately there is a disconnect between the CLC leadership and staff and those grassroots bodies. Sadly the relationship between the CLC and labour councils is generally bureaucratic . We need a relationship that is organic, one that respects those fighting to maintain a union presence at the local level. This means that the ties of solidarity between workers has been breaking down, and if we want to stop austerity we have to rebuild that solidarity. Unless we rebuild that and build with communities we are missing an opportunity to not just say NO but provide alternatives at a local level.
 
What about the issue of political representation of the workers movement, especially given the rush to the right by Mulcair, and the vacancy of the NDP at provincial levels.
I think that the workers movement shouldn’t sell its voice to anyone. I think we need to develop our own agenda, our own policies, we need to think big and develop a working class vision. We need to say that if the NDP thinks it should be supported by us then show us the vision you have to support workers. I think we should work with the NDP when they support our issues and criticize them when they take positions or enact legislation that isn’t in the interests of working people. We should not be shy.
 
The best way we can support those who claim to be in favour of workers, public services etc… the best isn’t to just vote when they tell us, but to actually mobilize our forces, mobilize our members to be on the streets and in the communities resisting the attacks. That will benefit anyone who truly is in support of workers and against austerity and attacks on services. Not only will that support them but also create pressure on those politicians to move left. But those who don’t move left, don’t respond to a vibrant labour movement with clear politics against austerity and a clear agenda, then clearly we have to oppose them.
 
Maybe we need to look at what running labour candidates would look like at various levels. Maybe its time to have a renewed discussion in the labour movement about political representation and who is labour’s political voice.
 
There is a hollowing out of the NDP across the country. Union activists that for years have been the bedrock of their riding associations have left the NDP or stopped being active. What do you think is the method to regroup/recompose the historic working class base of the NDP into something new?
Of course this is happening, the more the NDP moves to the right, the more working class activists will leave. It’s a tough question of where we go. Whatever progressive, socialist, grassroots, pro-working class or whatever formation develops or takes shape down the road—it’s  success will depend on whether there is a clear alternative vision inside the labour movement, a clear working class set of politics. Without that then both unions and any new political initiatives will continue to fumble.
 
Are we going to continue to be stuck supporting the lesser of the two or in a growing way three evils? Our task has to be to build up our side—the working class, as an organized movement and I feel that it can be done if we build it politically and on the ground force the question of political organization inside our movement and open the door for an openly working class political alternative.
 
What role does a more proactive CLC have regarding questions of the environment, pipelines and war—issues in general not seen as “core” union issues. How do you see how the CLC hasn’t done around these issues?
I think that the questions of war, peace, environmental protection, pipelines are important, they are working class issues, they affect our members and communities. They affect us in multiple ways. The labour movement should be front and centre on these issues. I know we are fighting a propaganda machine from both in and outside of our movement that says we should only be focusing on so-called “bread and butter” issues.
 
It is short sighted for labour to shrink from these challenges and move in a “business union” direction. Social Unionism by its very definition is engaged at all levels and an activist CLC and a social union movement will have a position on the environment that is progressive and looks at the broader issues rather than a narrow view of a particular sector or industry. The same is true of questions of peace and war and international solidarity as well. There are two elements to the question of peace and war, one when our government is involved in a war, but also one of international solidarity with oppressed peoples and national liberation movements and right across the world—and we as a labour movement can’t shy away from supporting these movements.
 
The record of the 70s and 80s wasn’t very good for official labour positions on these questions. The CLC didn’t really start to take good positions until later. Even in the anti-aparthied struggle the unions didn’t push for support for boycotts of South Africa until later—which was shameful and we can’t repeat those historical mistakes.
 
So I’m all for debating and tackling these so called controversial issues of international solidarity. I don’t think they are so controversial, in fact I think taking stands on these issues speaks to the heart of who we are.
 
In the past there been challenges and candidates that have run in elections in various labour bodies but have not really left anything behind on the ground in terms of networks. Through your campaign and where you are going, if you don’t win, is there a plan or strategy to maintain a network or a cohesion between the forces that are clearly supporting you out of the desperate need for change in the CLC and the need for some sort of common vision to fight the austerity agenda? Is there a plan to try and hold something together coming out of this?
Win or lose, the object is about building those networks that we are trying to develop at the present time. It’s a good point: if I don’t win it will very important to find ways and continue to keep together and grow even, the network of supporters. You’re right that in the past challenges were made to the leadership on a progressive basis and we didn’t do the follow up. I’m very cognizant of this, and my campaign is thinking beyond the May convention about what we need to be doing going forward.
 
It’s a very diverse movement but I can tell you the commonality between all the activists across the country are much greater than any differences and we cannot afford to miss another opportunity to build that movement right across the country.
 
I can tell you however, that if I win, it is even more important to build that movement, to keep the pressure and keep the support on myself and others, to keep involved and engaged on the ground and make sure there is support for this agenda. Without the support and push from the grassroots any progressive candidate wouldn’t be able to push further. My hope and plan is to make sure that in this process we connect those networks and activists with each other and we are making those networks through this campaign.
 
For more information on the campaign visit http://takebackclc.ca/ and follow Hassan on twitter @TakeBackCLC
 
If you like this article, register now for Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, a weekend-long political conference June 14-15 in Toronto. Sessions include “Taking on the anti-union threat in Ontario and Quebec,” “The NDP and the crisis of social democracy,” “The birth of industrial unionism in Canada 1937-46,” “Fighting Hudak’s attack on worker’s rights,” and “Rosa Luxemburg and the mass strike.” 

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