UNIFOR: Supporting workers and communities across Canada

By Angus Gillespie

Six years after the creation of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, President Jerry Dias and a close-knit executive team continue to fight for the deserved working rights of each and every one of their 320,000 members from coast to coast to coast.

Dias is the only president Unifor has ever known, having been selected as the inaugural leader upon 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. He was then re-elected to a second three-year term in August, 2016 and plans to run for one final three-year term prior to retiring in 2022.

The Canadian Business Journal recently caught up with Dias in downtown Toronto while he was between meetings and taking a number of important business calls. The two largest files he and his executive team have dealt with over the past 18 months has been the new NAFTA and General Motors of Canada’s announcement of the plant closure in Oshawa, Ontario this December, both of which are still very fresh in his mind as well as many others.


The recent NAFTA negotiations marked the first time that any global trade deal had the labour movement actually participating and providing valuable input as to the best methods moving forward for all sides. For the record, Dias did not miss a single round of bargaining talks in Washington, Ottawa, Montreal and Mexico City. He felt it was essential to be completely apprised of every last detail discussed in order that he could make the most informed decisions and suggestions on how to improve such a free trade agreement. The new acronym designation is USMCA, which stands for U.S., Mexico, and Canada and must yet be finalized by the U.S. government.

“I was part of the Canadian team as an advisor and the unofficial grenade thrower,” smiles Dias. In other words he was the team member to broach sensitive topics and articulate certain points that government officials really couldn’t, primarily for diplomatic reasons. By all accounts, Dias was exceedingly successful in relaying the message to the U.S. and Mexican media, on behalf of the federal government and Canadian workers.

Dias proved instrumental in having the Americans backtrack on the position whereby there was going to be a heavy ‘Buy American’ proposal, meaning 50% of everything sold in the United States would have to have American content.

“That was complete nonsense and would have destroyed our auto industry and destroyed our manufacturing industry as a whole,” he asserts.

Another key issue during the arduous negotiation processes were the demands for change made by the Canadian team relating to abhorrent labour standards in Mexico. Dias viewed it as an incredible opportunity to obtain much-needed improvements, because the original trade agreement has been a colossal disaster in his opinion.

“Pre-NAFTA we had a trade surplus in manufacturing – today we have a $120 billion deficit,” laments Dias. “If you look at the auto deficit with Mexico it is something like $16 billion, which is outrageous.”

Proof of an imbalance is front and centre for the public to see, but until now, nothing had been done about it. Four assembly plants have closed in Canada and 10 have been shuttered in the United States, all the while eight have since opened in Mexico. BMW is opening a plant in Mexico where workers are going to earn the equivalent of $1.10 per hour, according to Dias.

One of the main arguments Canada had during the trilateral trade renegotiations was the inherent requirement to fix the abysmal Mexican labour standards.

“Mexican labour workers in the auto industry make anywhere between $2 and $4 per hour – all in – so a Mexican auto worker can never afford to buy a vehicle that they built. It’s absolutely outrageous,” continues Dias.

In fact, Dias goes as far as to call it a very corrupt system in Mexico and corrupt to the point where the government has been known to sanction what are described with disdain as ‘Yellow Unions’.

“They were sanctioned by the government and controlled by the companies. What they would do is sign protection agreements like the BMW deal,” explains Dias.

As part of the process, a company looking to set up operations in Mexico would approach the government and then be turned over to the ‘Yellow Union’ – called the CTM. Collective agreements would be signed before a single worker had been hired or a shovel put in the ground. There really was no union at all. It was merely a puppet organization controlled by the company.

“This has been the Mexican industrial strategy for decades. It worked in creating jobs but it didn’t do anything for the standard of living for Mexican workers,” notes Dias.

The result of decades of suppressed wages and yellow unions in Mexico meant that thousands of workers in Canada and the U.S. lost their jobs due to economics. Mexicans had jobs, but were being horribly exploited and undervalued for their work.

The Canadian delegation made arguably the most aggressive labour proposals ever put forth in a trade deal and managed to obtain a significant portion of what they went looking for during the prolonged negotiations. Mexico has now agreed to the elimination of the ‘yellow unions’ with workers having the right to free collective bargaining and voting on collective agreements. It began the process of dismantling the exploitation system in Mexico.

Not surprisingly, Mexico was infuriated that Canada stuck its nose into their domestic industrial strategies as part of the three-way international trade negotiations with the United States. It’s a reaction that pleased Dias to no end.

“When I heard they were upset, I was honoured because it was our union that pushed the narrative on changing the labour standards and it was our work with the Canadian government that led to those types of breakthroughs,” he proudly says.

One aspect that continues to annoy Dias about the NAFTA negotiations is that many other North American unions had the opportunity to get involved and be part of a solution towards improving the trilateral agreement – but none opted to do so. Now organizations such as the AFL-CIO are talking with the U.S. Democrats about ensuring the labour standards in Mexico are enforceable. But Dias often wonders where the other unions were during the difficult negotiations in the trenches.

“The new NAFTA is still not a good deal, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the original deal from 25 years ago,” Dias states bluntly. “Many of the issues that were dealt with would never have been raised if we weren’t there. If you look at the history of the labour movement, many organizations are comfortable standing outside yelling at the walls instead of kicking down the door and arguing from the inside.”

The new trade agreement managed to eradicate what is known as the Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), a mechanism by which corporations can file lawsuits against countries. Canada was the most-sued country under ISDS to the tune of more than $300 million.

“For the first time we dealt with the state of the auto industry, which was a huge victory. We said that 35% to 40% of assembled vehicles in Mexico have to be built on wages equivalent to at least $16 U.S. or $20 Canadian,” confirms Dias. “We also put into place provisions that improve the percentages of the parts of vehicles to make it tariff-free. We moved it from 62% to more than 70% in a pact known as the Rules of Origin.”

During the time when the Canadian federal government was being pressured by the U.S. to accept a hard quota on steel and aluminum imports, Dias and Unifor were part of a very small group that managed to have it blocked. In attendance during those crucial final 48 hours were the prime minister’s office, the Canadian team and Dias – no other stakeholders were involved.

“Anybody can quickly sign a lousy deal. You need to have the skill and fortitude to be patient to get a better one. This isn’t a great deal by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s far better than the original,” Dias reaffirms.

General Motors

The other hot potato Unifor was of course General Motors’ announcement in November, 2018 that the company was closing the facilities in Oshawa by December, 2019. The corporate decision was viewed as an absolute insult to Dias and thousands of workers, especially in light of the fact a new pact had just been signed in September, 2016 when the auto company committed to keeping the facilities open. In addition to the Canadian plant closure, GM also announced four in the U.S. would be closing with operations in Mexico suffering no side effects.

“The ink wasn’t even dry on the new NAFTA and they announced five closures,” underscores Dias. “The actions highlighted what was wrong with the original NAFTA all along – that good jobs were being taken from Canada and the U.S. and relocated to Mexico.”

The gloves were then off as Unifor went on the offensive in what amounted to a very public war, including televised advertisements during the Super Bowl and a massive media campaign during Hockey Night in Canada.

“We bombarded GM with TV ads as well as being very busy on social media. We had a Sting concert after he graciously reached out to us,” recalls Dias.

It frustrates Dias to know that Ontario Premier Doug Ford and many others took the stance that nothing could be done to prevent the Oshawa GM plant closure – the ship had sailed, according to the naysayers. There was also no room for movement from the head of GM in Canada, who also said the decision was final.

“I was accused by some in the media of creating false hope and false expectations for our members and being disingenuous and should just face the fact our plant was closing,” notes Dias.

“Ultimately we found a solution, but it was by no means perfect,” he continues. “But instead of a hard closure in December, 2019 we’re in the process of transforming the Oshawa plant to making parts. We’ll be in bargaining with General Motors in September, 2020 and a part of the deal is keeping the integrity of the plant in place.”

In essence, Dias and his team at Unifor managed to draw blood from a proverbial stone when it appeared everything was lost. The fact several hundred jobs have been saved is nothing short of miraculous and it provides hope that there could be expansion in the future if all goes well. Dias received telephone calls and emails of congratulations from a number of influential leaders thanks to all the efforts and hard work that went into saving those jobs.

“I got a call immediately from the Prime Minister,” he mentions. “I had many positive emails from people congratulating us on the accomplishment but I am still hugely disappointed. I think of all our members that are losing their jobs. But the positive from all of this is that the plant is staying open, so we live to fight another day.”

A truly special, inspiring takeaway from such a difficult time was having music legend Sting (Gordon Sumner) reach out to Unifor, asking what he could do to help. Sting was in the midst of doing a live show called The Last Ship at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto and it was about the fate of the shipbuilding industry in his own community growing up as a child in the United Kingdom.

Dias and Sting had a lengthy discussion about what was happening in Oshawa, which struck a chord with the rock legend, because he had witnessed first-hand the demise of the shipping industry where he had lived as a child and witnessed first-hand how devastating it was to the local community as well as the broader region. It was decided Sting would perform a benefit concert for the GM workers and their families to help boost morale at the Tribute Communities Centre in Oshawa, which has a capacity of more than 6,000.

“The fact that he did a benefit concert and called out corporate greed and stuck his neck out in such a significant way is a real testimony to who he is and his social conscience,” says Dias.

Dias and Unifor have urged the outright boycott of Mexican-made vehicles. The identifier is located on each automobile’s VIN number, which begins with a ‘3’ if made in Mexico. “If it starts with three, it’s not for me” became a popular catch-phrase on a well-publicized television commercial.

The battle against Unifor definitely left lingering scars on General Motors. The Detroit-based automaker had been No.1 in sales in Canada in 2017 and 2018. However, by April, 2019 GM had fallen to fourth. It seems many people remember how the Canadian government provided the automaker with a huge bailout to the tune of about $10.2 billion in order to avoid bankruptcy. While it’s true the debt was repaid, Dias argues that if not for the generosity of the Canadian and U.S. governments, GM never would have had that opportunity to rebound.

“You may have forgotten our generosity, but we’ll never forget your greed,” says Dias.

New Era

The manufacturing sector has always been a key economic backbone in the country and will continue to be that way according to Dias. Of concern is the number of contract, non-standard part-time jobs that are being created as opposed to permanent jobs – now at a rate of about three-to-one. The pendulum has been swinging in that same direction for nearly 30 years.

As the population in Canada ages it becomes strikingly clear that there is also a need to provide an increased level of care for the elderly. It’s an area where governments must spend a lot more attention and resources. Another area where Unifor provides excellent support is in helping Indigenous communities in striving for greater economic success and independence.

Dias and Unifor also note that women still earn just 72% of what men make for the same job, which is a massive injustice. There remains a lot of uncertainty, inequity and inequality that still exists in society, which is difficult to accept so far into the 21st century.

“When we try and deal with issues like this in NAFTA, the U.S. pushes back. That’s the type of nonsense we have to deal with,” he says.

The labour movement in the private sector in the U.S. is about 6.5%. Overall unionization is under 10%. Subtract the unionization in New York and California and the percentage plummets. Conversely, in Canada about 17% of workers are unionized in the private sector and about 29% overall.

American unions would like to increase their influence here in Canada but the simple reality according to Dias is that they dropped the ball in their own country, so why would Canada want to use their mediocre model as a template moving forward.

“We have a hard retirement at the age of 65 and that’s because in order for the labour movement to flourish you have to evolve to young people,” Dias points out. “If I look at the U.S. labour movement it’s not uncommon to have labour leaders in their 70s. It’s unbelievable.”

According to Dias, when labour leaders look to be re-elected as they reach the age of 70 and beyond they do it for two primary reasons: firstly, they are arrogant and don’t believe anybody else can do a better job or; they haven’t done a good job of successorship, meaning nobody else has been adequately trained to take over the position.

“I’ll never forget when I went to my first CLC executive board meeting, when we were still part of the Canadian Labour Congress, and I couldn’t believe the age of the people in the room. I’m always fascinated when I listen to a 70-year-old talk about the path to building a strong labour movement is by involving young people. I agree. But young people don’t want to be led by their grandfather in collective bargaining,” he says.

The labour movement has a critical role to play to ensure workers are not left behind in the new economy. As example, in Germany there are the companies, unions, governments and post-secondary institutions all at the table looking to find innovative solutions that will help grow the economy. Employers are talking about the changes in processes and technology; the unions are talking about the impact it will have on working people; and the governments understand they’re going to have to fund the changes and the educational bodies are there to reveal how they will properly train young people.

“It’s so basic and yet we don’t do that here in Canada,” frowns Dias. “We need more tripartite boards, not less. Eliminating them is small thinking. Sure, you save a couple of million bucks in the short term but it does a lot of damage to the continuity of building a stronger economy.”

In determining a path for the influential media file, the U.S. was pushing for more foreign ownership in the telecommunications sector, which would affect the likes of Bell and Rogers here in Canada. In essence, the U.S. wanted to push about $1 billion worth of costs in the media sector with respect to satellite feeds crossing the border. In other words, if Bell or Rogers wanted to include NBC in a package they were going to have to pay more for it.

The federal Conservatives have led the charge to remove Unifor from having a voice with respect to the media panel after the federal government made a $600 million commitment to help bail out local media and ensure quality journalism and news coverage continues across Canada.

“We represent more than 12,000 workers in the media sector, by far the largest in the country but the Conservatives are saying that because I’m so anti-Conservative that Unifor shouldn’t have a seat. We appointed a journalist from Postmedia, which is known as being a right-wing publication. It’s hardly a situation where I’m going to be on a panel determining who gets the money and who doesn’t,” emphasizes Dias. “It’s just nonsense.”

Six-year Plan

Six years into Dias’s leadership at Unifor it is without doubt the largest, most aggressive progressive labour organization in the country and holds the public highest profile. The willingness to get deeply involved in the politics of the country is what sets Unifor apart according to Dias. From the very outset, the commitment by the union and its leadership was to approach and execute things differently.

“A key piece in all of this is the makeup of our union,” Dias points out. “Three of the top six officers are women. We’re a union with less than 30% women but more than 50% of the top six officers are women. We have a national executive board made up of 25 people and it is diversified from coast to coast to coast. It’s not the prototypical bunch of old white men sitting in a room.”

Leading a national union of Unifor’s size and influence is not for the faint of heart. Given the number of business sectors it covers on behalf of its workers there is a battle brewing at every corner, and it requires a great deal of passion, intelligence, energy, enthusiasm, strength and tenacity – all traits that would adequately describe Dias’s character and personality. The path of least resistance is always preferable, but often not possible. Dias says you have to be willing to fight for what’s right.

“I had enough injunctions filed against me personally and our union in 2018 that I could wallpaper my entire living room,” he chuckles.

The threat of legal action is something that definitely does not worry Dias in the least. The reality is that companies will rarely win those types of battles in a courtroom. Both sides need to meet at the bargaining table. Injunctions and lawsuits are largely a waste of time, and Dias knows it, although it puts a lot of money in the pockets of lawyers.

Overall, Dias is quite pleased with the progress at Unifor but stresses there how there is still a long way to go.

“If I’m re-elected in August I’ll stay for one more term. If elected, at the end of my next term I’ll be 63 so I couldn’t put in another full term after that,” he explains. “But I’ve got so many young assistants as part of a leadership team that the transformation of the union will be seamless. The next team will then take the union to much greater heights than I was ever able to take it.”

In 2013 there were six women premiers. Today there are none and seven out of 10 provinces are led by Conservatives. Dias makes it clear that one of the main preoccupations for Unifor will be to ensure that Andrew Scheer is not elected prime minister.

Cumulatively, it’s about taking the union to the next level and ensuring good-paying jobs in positive environments are available for Canadian workers.

“When I leave three years down the road I want Unifor to be an even stronger union. If I’ve done anything right I’ve surrounded myself with people who are smarter than I am,” Dias modestly states.

Community Involvement

Giving back to the local communities is something Dias and the Unifor membership have been involved with for the entire six years of the organization. It’s a crucial aspect in creating 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,” he says.

Dias’s proudest community-related accomplishment has been his involvement with the Hope in High Heels walk, which is a fundraiser for the Halton Women’s Place. In addition to being a fundraiser it also heightens awareness about the problem of violence against women.

“That’s another reason why I am so passionate about the media file and local news, because I read about this in my local newspaper and would never otherwise have known about it. When I saw it, my son and I made the decision to walk the following year,” he says.

The first two Hope in High Heels walks in Oakville and Burlington netted $18,000 combined. But it wasn’t so much the money as the consciousness that was raised about such a dire problem that afflicts society. Dias and his son joined the following year and pledged to raise $18,000 between just the two of them. They exceeded their target, raising $25,000 and by last year that figure had swelled to an astounding $111,000.

Today, Dias sits on the board of directors of Halton Women’s Place. The first walk had about 20 men participate. The most recent one had more than 150 men, and about 100 from Unifor.

“A man would never lift his hand and touch a woman if he walked into a shelter. When you see the baby cribs it messes you up knowing that a battered woman had to take her baby there to avoid violence,” says Dias.

Unifor is a staunch supporter of democratic socialism because the labour movement will never flourish if it does not play an active role within the community. At any given time the union has more than 100 social justice programs in 55 countries around the world.

“We put our money where our mouth is – and do it in a significant way,” he says.


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