Unifor: a Union for Everyone

By Angus Gillespie

On August 23, 2016 Canada’s largest private sector union confirmed its leadership direction for the next three years with the unanimous and unopposed re-election of Jerry Dias as the President of Unifor. More than 1,800 delegates were in attendance at the Shaw Centre (formerly the Ottawa Convention Centre) for the organization’s second Constitutional Convention.

Other leaders at Unifor stood for re-election in Ottawa, with the exception of Secretary-Treasurer Peter Kennedy, who is retiring, and Katha Fortier who was named Assistant to the President. Replacing Kennedy is long-time leader and activist Bob Orr.

The 57-year-old Dias now enters his second three-year term. Simply put, he is viewed as the best person to continue to lead the organization, which is the primary reason why he ran unopposed.

Three years ago The Canadian Business Journal first held an exclusive interview with Jerry Dias just as he was taking on the role of president following the merger of two former well-known unions on August 31, 2013: the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which had been led by Ken Lewenza and David Coles, respectively.

Just recently CBJ met with Dias again, three years after our first discussion. What is immediately noticeable upon seeing him in person for the second time is that his enthusiasm, passion and commitment to furthering the union’s mandate are every bit as robust as when he initially took the reins.

“I thought I was energized three years ago, but I’m more energized today than I was when we founded Unifor,” Dias smiles broadly. “We will continue to fight until we have achieved social and economic justice, not just for our members but for our communities as well.”

The Labour Movement

Touching on 315,000 members nationwide, Unifor has a notable presence in every major sector of the economy, including everything from manufacturing and media to forestry and fishing. Unifor was created to challenge the labour movement; to challenge politicians and change the politics within the country – all lofty ambitions to say the least.

A great deal has changed over the past three years, much of which has been extremely positive from Unifor’s stance. As example, Hassan Yussuff is now the president of the Canadian Labour Council. He’s the first person from a minority background to hold down the position, having defeated the incumbent who held the job for 15 years. Unifor is vocal about the need for everyone to be given equal opportunities for advancement.

With the formation of Unifor Dias felt the labour movement was at a crossroads and was in need of being steered down a new path, which required wholesale upheaval and a new buy-in for several key areas.

“We first needed to organize the labour movement in Canada otherwise we couldn’t have the type of success that we expected or desire politically, not just for us, but for working-class people in general,” he says. “I will argue that strengthening the labour movement was really Step 1 in the overall process of changing the politics of the country.”

At the time Unifor was born Ontarians were heading into a provincial election, where the Progressive Conservatives, led by Tim Hudak, were frontrunners in the polls and riding on a Right to Work platform comparable to that in the United States.

“Our union played one major role in ensuring Tim Hudak was defeated,” Dias declares. “We also used the opportunity to communicate directly with our members like we never had and continue to this day, and is something we need to continue to be better at doing.”

During the intervening 36 months there has been a notable change in the labour movement and politically, which means Dias and Unifor have been successful in their itinerary to date. To that end he credits the union for being the most vocal in the country.

“Everybody has pulled together in building this. It has been a real group project – and we’re just starting,” he says. “My commitment is that I’m here to build Unifor and work with the leadership and staff. That’s my job.”

A number of workers have retired over the past three years, the result of which has seen about 50 new employees joining the team over that duration. “We’re replacing them with younger people who have experience within their own workplaces but it’s going to take time to assimilate and work towards developing Unifor’s culture,” Dias says.

The executive team is consistent in making it abundantly clear that the organization is Unifor – not the former CAW or the former CEP. As with all merged entities it’s acknowledged there are times when a certain degree of growing pains are felt, which is only natural. But the president says he is actually surprised at the pace of assimilation, given the enormity of the amalgamation.

“I’ll be candid; it’s gone much smoother than I thought it would,” Dias responds. “A lot of senior people with our two former organizations retired and they were replaced by new people who were determined to build the project. There were no hangovers from previous ways of doing things. We changed the leadership structure with the new Unifor. People moved into roles that hadn’t previously existed. It created incredible opportunities.”

According to Dias, either Lewenza or Coles would have done an excellent job in leading the new union and in fact it was because of their leadership that the merger happened in the first place. They understood that there needed to be a new way of doing things, which for the betterment of the new organization meant fresh, new leadership.

“I think either of them could have led Unifor but the other side of it is that I was new. I would expect the former members from the CEP and CAW saw that this was a new union with a new leader and it eliminated any potential chatter of one union taking over another,” Dias explains.

The incredible leadership – and ultimately sacrifice – in having both Lewenza and Coles agree to step out of the way has never been lost on Dias. It is evident in his words and facial expressions that he holds a great deal of respect for both men. But Coles was turning 65 and prepared to exit. Dias says Lewenza could certainly have done the job but ultimately decided the organization as a whole would be stronger if he also stepped aside.

“To me, that’s the ultimate sacrifice and defines what leadership is all about,” Dias says. “I have zero intention to let him or anybody else down and so it motivates me.”

Structured Success

A major factor as to why Unifor has been exceedingly successful in its opening three years is that there was always the foresight to put a structure in place first. It was only after the core plan was determined with a viable path put in place did the leadership candidates emerge. In fact, Dias didn’t realize he was going to run for the presidency until about a month before that inaugural convention in 2013. Personalities did not create roadblocks that could have gotten in the way of what Unifor was trying to build and accomplish.

Now that Dias is beginning the start of his second term, he is genuinely excited about what the future holds for Unifor in large part because of the strong level of commitment and involvement shown by local union leaders and the membership. “We went into major bargaining with Resolute Forest Products and we candidly changed the way the forestry sector has historically conducted bargaining. We instilled a lot more rank and file involvement. People are participating in electoral reform and politics more aggressively than I thought they would.”

The level of participation and commitment is something Dias is extremely buoyant to see. It creates a positive work environment and the aura is a natural extension into the community with employers and various levels of government. He is also well aware that it is important for Unifor to have a favourable image within the communities where members live and work.

“We understand that if we’re going to have success as a labour organization it will be because we bring the community along with us and we participate in the betterment of our communities. The labour movement can’t flourish in isolation. We need the support of the population and we do a lot of work in the communities that we live in,” Dias says.

Sector Growth

Near the top of the agenda for Dias and his executive team will be to continue the unionization of the retail wholesale sector, where there are an inordinate number of challenges of the precarious non-standard jobs. Because of the transiency of the industries within those sectors it makes it difficult to organize, but is one that Unifor believes needs immediate attention.

“If you take a look at our collective bargaining victory with the Metro stores the key issues were low wages and schedules. The two major highlights of that were significant wage increases and once and for all, scheduling stability. If we can take that model and move it through the industry, people are going to want to organize,” Dias says. “People are more conducive to organize in those industries because of the lack of good-paying jobs elsewhere.”

Arguably the largest organizing victory in Canada in the last two decades was achieved by Unifor at Casino Rama with 1,700 new members. The main issues were the hiring of many part-time workers and very few full-time workers, which was often mired in scheduling problems according to Dias.

A main objective for Dias and Unifor is to continue the organization’s diversification and the people it represents across numerous business sectors. The new union initiative provided an incredible opportunity because of Unifor’s roots in the two former organizations. As example, one would have had critical mass in a particular sector where the other did not; or one would have a solid footprint in one province, and the other did not. The integration created a mega union with many more potential growth opportunities.

“We’ve organized about 15,000 new members in the last three years, which I think is better than any other union in Canada,” Dias proudly says.

Working with Governments

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ran on a platform of returning the age of retirement to 65 from 67 in the Canadian Pension Plan while also enhancing the program at the same time because they were looking for stronger support from the labour movement and working-class people.

“It’s the best social victory we’ve had in 30 years,” Dias says. “There is no question in my mind that there wouldn’t have been a change in the CPP if it wasn’t for the labour movement.”

This country’s success is always predicated on the prosperity of the middle class, which is the heart and soul of the nation. But there has been a distinct erosion of the middle class with about 500,000 manufacturing jobs having disappeared over the past decade. Dias blames a good deal of the demise on former Prime Minister Stephen Harper putting all his eggs into the oil and energy basket. In spite of his distaste for the path taken by the former Conservative government he expects stronger results with the current Liberal government.

“I believe we can regain it, but it’s going to be difficult. When companies disinvest from a country it’s difficult to get them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to re-establish their footprint there again. Once they’ve made the decision to leave they generally don’t come back,” Dias says.

Canada as a whole has a higher educated workforce than the U.S. and Mexico. That, combined with a 76 to 77-cent dollar, and strength in advanced manufacturing, means the stars are aligned for Canada to take a preeminent role again on the global stage. But Dias says that can only happen if the federal government understands they must play a key, ongoing role.

“We’ve got Silicon Valley north,” Dias notes. “GM announced they were hiring 700 engineers because of the education system that we have here in Canada. We have a history in this country of being on the leading edge of technology, from the Avro Arrow to Nortel and many others. But ultimately people would leave Canada in pursuit of bigger and better opportunities but I think we are better suited now to push the agenda here.”

Trade Strategies

Dias says Canada desperately needs to develop an auto strategy not only to maintain what the country now has, but also to attract additional investment. “It has to be the same argument on manufacturing, hi-tech and a whole host of new initiatives.”

Many free trade deals have been called into question and whether they provide enough benefit for Canadians. The automotive industry is the leading export sector in Canada, but the overwhelming sentiment from within the industry is that these trade deals have only served to weaken our employment and power base. Dias has repeatedly called upon the federal government not to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership and is quite blunt about it. “It’s just another lousy trade deal. If you’re against these trade deals somehow you’re perceived as wanting to build a wall around the country. The only fool who wants to do that is Donald Trump. We’re a trading nation. The facts are that 85% of what our members manufacture is exported so I understand the importance of trade. But you have to have some common sense with the deals you put in place. The TPP is another example of a trade deal that was bargained in a moment of weakness.”

Further aggravating the situation is that countries such as South Korea and Japan both have closed markets. The Japanese ship about 160,000 vehicles to Canada every year while Canada ships about 500 the other way. South Korea sends Canada about 100,000 while barely 100 go in the opposite direction.

“Do we honestly believe that by eliminating a 6.1% tariff on Japanese vehicles that that’s going to help us? Dias asks. “The Japanese don’t have any tariffs on imported vehicles so we didn’t win anything. It’s not now all of a sudden they’re going to open the gates and we’re going to start shipping cars from Canada to Japan.”

A lot of what’s going to unfold will be out of Canada’s control.

“I believe that the TPP is going to get squashed in the United States and if that happens, it’s over,” Dias says. “And there’s also a big debate going on right now about NAFTA.”

About 15 years ago Canada had a $15 billion trade deficit but it’s since ballooned to $120 billion. The nation has lost two auto assembly plants during a time when Mexico has expanded by eight. But the good news is that Dias believes more and more people feel there is a way to fight back. Germany has equal trade with China so it benefits both nations. Dias asserts that is what happens when you have a plan that doesn’t allow another country to dump its products down without the ability to reciprocate. It’s about equality, which Unifor’s leader says boils down to political choice and intestinal fortitude.

Ford recently announced their recent quarterly earnings and they appear to be on solid ground. The auto industry is responsible for almost 500,000 direct and indirect jobs in Ontario. Take the auto industry out of the province and it’s a direct recipe for a depression.

“We will have major challenges with each of the Detroit Three. I can’t generalize, because Ford has invested probably about $800 million in Oakville where they are running a three-shift operation now. Chrysler has invested billions in Windsor and Brampton. General Motors has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the CAMI facility so things are stable in some facilities but clearly our preoccupation in bargaining over the next few months is to solidify the footprint here in Canada,” Dias says.

“We are determined to find resolutions and get new programs for our facilities, and we will find resolutions, make no mistake about it.”

The Canadian Dollar

It’s commonly known that successful companies that import and/or export do not make key investments based on what’s happening in the spur of the moment with the rate of the Canadian dollar, but rather will analyze historical averages. The exchange rate over the last three years has been around 80 cents U.S. Very few people, if any, are expecting a barrel of oil to hit $115 a barrel again any time soon. The majority of economists and financial analysts are of the opinion the Canadian dollar is likely to remain in the general ballpark of where it stands now, at just under 80 cents.

“It’s all about positioning,” Dias asserts. “The facts are is that when we were in bargaining and the Canadian dollar was at par with the U.S. dollar, the Detroit Three talked about it every day as being an impediment. Now that the Canadian dollar is at 76 or 77 cents they say they don’t make decisions based on the exchange.”

Enhancing Business Sectors

Unifor leaders will soon be meeting with representatives from the Nova Scotia government about a new shipbuilding contract. “The shipbuilding industry is going to be one of the staples of the economy in Nova Scotia,” Dias says. “We need a replacement fleet. It’s the same with the helicopters and fighter jets.”

In the west there will be discussions with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley about the oilsands and the steps that can be taken to help stabilize the floundering industry during turbulent times. There is also a plan to meet with the federal government about fishing quotas and with the Newfoundland government about challenges with the shrimp industry. There’s everything from print media to forestry, automotive, aerospace, oil and gas on the agenda for Dias and his executive team to deal with.

Six-Year Plan

In previous interviews with CBJ, both former CAW President Lewenza and Dias indicated that getting Unifor to where it needs to be would be – at minimum – a six-year commitment. Three years in to that mandate, Dias firmly believes the union is on course to achieve what it originally set out to do upon its creation in 2013 but that the entire organization must keep focused on its goals and aspirations.

“We hope to be a bigger union than we are today because that means there would be more jobs in the workplace,” Dias says. “The No.1 priority is to continue what we’ve started. It’s about building respect with our existing members and translating that respect into future organizing. It’s about continuing to develop our profile which will give us more political clout at the bargaining table. It’s about working closer to communities. I hope we’re living in a country that has more progressive social change as it relates to legislation.”

Dias still has the passion and the fiery personality. In fact, he says he feels even better and stronger than he did when he assumed the leadership three years ago. His stamina and determination shine through in his voice, his face expressions and his movements. His intellect, experience, and exceptional memory about events from the past serve him well for what he intends to achieve in the future. He combines a unique blend of friendliness and competitive fierceness all at the same time. Dias hides nothing. He is very transparent. He is fighting for fairness and equitable solutions for everyone and it’s evident he’s not anywhere near being finished with what he started. There is still that fire in his belly with an acknowledgement there is still a lot of work to do. He feels it would be a colossal disservice not to continue along the determined path that will lead to a change for the better.

“Three years ago we talked about being sick and tired of playing defense and that it was time to play offense,” Dias recalls from our first discussion. “Since then we’ve been playing offense and I think that has given our members and leadership a lot of confidence. People now understand that if you fight you can win. You’re going to lose on every issue that you’re not prepared to take on. But if you’re prepared to fight, you don’t always win, but you’re going to win some. It’s our time.”