Labour movement looking up: leaders

The Canadian Press
Nicole Thompson

Leaders in the labour movement say things are looking better this Labour Day than they did a decade ago–despite a shifting economic landscape that includes increased automation and ongoing trade disputes.
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the union movement has made significant strides in recent years, including changes to the Canada Pension Plan, which Yussuff had been pushing for for nearly a decade.
“The first changes will start to be phased in beginning 2018, so we feel pretty good with where we’re at,” he noted.
There also have been some lower profile changes that Yussuff sees as positive for the labour movement, including a ban on the import and export of asbestos starting in 2018.
The Canadian Labour Congress long had demanded a ban on asbestos, which it said was a leading cause of workplace-related death in Canada.
Provincially, Yussuff noted, the Alberta and Ontario governments both have pledged to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2019.
Unifor president Jerry Dias said things haven’t always been so rosy for the labour movement.
“If we go back 10 years under [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper, the labour movement was really stagnant,” he noted.
“It was really stuck in the mud.”
Dias added the economy was affected by the recession, which made things harder for workers.
But while the economy has picked up since then, Yussuff said it continues to pose challenges.
“The economy will continue to change because of technological advances,” he remarked.
“Technology is consistently challenging many of the things we have done in traditional ways, and we have to ensure government is putting much more opportunity for workers to get retrained and upgrading their skills to make sure they are able to adapt.”
Dias and Yussuff also both are grappling with how renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement could affect workers.
Dias, who is in Mexico City for the second round of negotiations on the trade deal, described NAFTA as a “disaster that has been an albatross over our head for the last 23 years,” and he said he hopes a reformed deal may better suit his union’s interests.
He said the initial deal favoured corporations and he plans to advocate for workers in the new deal, protecting some of the remaining manufacturing jobs in Canada.
Many blame NAFTA for the closure of assembly plants in Canada and the U.S. while Mexico has gained factories since the deal was created.
Dias also is advocating for Mexican workers, including calling for easier unionization rules for Mexico, a higher minimum wage in the country, and an international mechanism to enforce new NAFTA labour standards.