Undervalued workers deserve more, says Winnipegger now leading nation’s largest labour organization

A Winnipeg activist is taking the mantle of Canada’s largest labour organization at a time when the plight of essential workers is being laid bare. 

The new president of the Canadian Labour Congress, Bea Bruske, said COVID-19 exposed the degree front-line workers have been devalued.

As the federal government plots a post-pandemic recovery for the country, Bruske said addressing those shortcomings will be top of mind as she takes over the CLC, a labour group representing three million Canadians. 

“The folks that we don’t necessarily, as a society, tend to spend a lot of time thinking about are the ones that got us through the worst days of the pandemic,” she said.

“Looking at their work reality, and some of the things that need to change in order to make those workplaces better, has to be a priority for all of us.”

Bruske was elected president of CLC on Friday, ending her 27-year tenure fighting for the rights of private-sector workers as an employee of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832 in Manitoba.

Unification needed

After her election victory, Bruske told the CLC’s convention the labour movement must be united “now more than ever” as right-wing governments strip away workers’ rights and reduce basic health and safety protections, she alleged.

“Labour has a very important role to play in this fight back against this assault on working people,” she said.

In an interview Saturday, Bruske stressed the importance in challenging any “hack and slash” governments and ensuring the public services Canadians rely upon are secured. She will have to lobby the federal Liberal government to get her way. 

Her predecessor, Hassan Yussuff, was seen as cozy with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The relationship led to benefits, Yussuff said, as unionized and non-unionized workers won an expanded Canada Pension Plan, a ban on asbestos products, the repeal of controversial labour legislation and an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15/ hour.

As president of the Canadian Labour Congress, Hassan Yussuff achieved numerous labour advancements, including expansions to the Canada Pension Plan and the implementation of a $15 per hour federal minimum wage. (Hassan Yussuff/Facebook)

Bruske wouldn’t state whether the CLC aligned too closely with the Liberals, as some have alleged, but insisted she’d fight strongly for workers’ rights no matter which government is in power. 

That said, she acknowledges she’s a strong supporter of the federal NDP, the “natural home” of the labour movement. She ran for the Manitoba NDP in the 2019 election, but lost.

“We were founding partners of that party, and it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that that party works to our best advantage in terms of making sure that worker issues are constantly at the forefront.”

She took a public stance against Yussuff months ago when the CLC endorsed former Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau for a seat on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a decision which outraged other labour leaders who said they were not consulted.

To lead the labour movement on a national scale, Bruske resigned from her role as secretary-treasurer of the UFCW local. She’s been with the union as an employee since 1994, but was involved in union activities for several years before then.

“I was an activist as a shop steward, I was an activist on our executive board. Thinking about not being there is a very strange experience for me.”

Striking as an 18-year-old had ‘profound impact’ 

At the age of 18, she joined the picket line for 125 days as her colleagues at the Westfair grocery chain in Manitoba fought for a fair contract. 

“That, quite frankly, had a really profound impact on me and it changed the direction of my life,” said Bruske, who took labour studies courses at University of Manitoba rather than becoming a teacher.

She applauds her union colleagues for supporting her run for a national position, a daunting task where she spent 18 months campaigning and learning about labour issues across the country. 

Marie Buchan, an employee of UFCW Local 832 since 2003, was elected as the local’s new secretary treasurer. She’s held the role on an interim basis since April when Bruske went on a leave of absence to focus on her campaign. 

The other members of Bruske’s Team Unite slate also won their CLC election: Lily Chang, who became secretary-treasurer, and Siobhan Vipond, who was elected executive vice-president.

Returning executive vice-president Larry Rousseau was re-elected for a second term.