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Tensions were palpable as the Unifor national convention kicked off Monday in Toronto with a highly contentious election, just two days after longtime leader Jerry Dias took early retirement amid an investigation into an alleged kickback.
The election is a historic one for Canada’s largest private sector union, representing approximately 315,000 workers across the country, including Toronto Star employees. The union has not had a contentious election since Dias was first elected in 2013. He was due to retire this year, but then took early retirement not long before news broke that he was being investigated for the alleged kickback, news that the union leadership and cast the upcoming elections in a new and more complex light.
An outside workplace investigation into Dias’s behavior found that he was reportedly paid $50,000 in cash from a company that provides COVID-19 rapid tests in exchange for Dias promoting those tests to Unifor employers. Dias would offer half of the bribe to assistant Chris MacDonald, who reported it to the union.
Citing health concerns, Dias did not participate in the investigation, and his attorney Tom Curry has said this does not make the investigation credible. Dias will have the opportunity to speak at a forthcoming hearing.
Before the scandal surfaced and on Dias’s recommendation, the union’s National Board voted to support Dias’ aide Scott Doherty as president. At the time, Dave Cassidy, president of Unifor Local 444 of Windsor, was the only opponent. In April, Secretary-Treasurer Lana Payne threw in her hat, a controversial decision due to the timing and her role in handling the investigation results, criticism from the leadership group and causing Doherty to reject their approval.
Dias may not be at the convention, but his presence is like a ghost in the air, said Larry Savage, a professor of labor studies at Brock University.
“You can cut the tension with a knife,” Savage said.
By the time delegates had lunch on Monday, no one had spoken the former president’s name into a microphone.
After the break, Payne gave a brief overview of the investigation and the impending task force to look at lessons from the Dias scandal. Members then took to the microphones, some criticizing the board’s decision to release the investigation, and many opposed it with support for the board’s transparency during the scandal.
“This union has been through hell,” said Jennifer Moreau, chair of the union’s Media Council. “We have to tackle this head-on.”
The new president will be elected Wednesday by delegates who vote on behalf of their local people.
According to Savage, Payne has an edge over Doherty, based on the approvals made public by union members, but those approvals only represent about a third of Unifor residents.
Unifor is entering its first contentious election without clear leadership approval, Savage said, and after two days the results are far from clear.
However, Savage noted that the structure of the convention benefited Payne, as she got a lot of face time from the opening remarks to the financial report, where she brought positive news about the union’s recovery after several years of deficit.
Dias’s legacy may have been publicly tarnished by the scandal, but inside the convention walls it’s a lot more complicated, Savage said. The former leader is inextricably linked to the union’s history, including its many victories and achievements, and his former assistant is running to replace him.
The bombastic Dias wielded personality and political power with great success during his tenure as president, which began with the founding of Unifor in 2013. He is credited with saving a car factory in Oshawa, and had the ear of federal and provincial politicians.
“It doesn’t matter who wins, there will be a reckoning,” Savage said.
Doherty’s relationship and history with Dias, once a major boon to his campaign, has now become an albatross, Savage said, and he had to work to portray himself, not as the bearer of the torch, but as an agent of change.
Simon Black, an associate professor of labor studies at Brock University, said the current moment in Canada and North America is defined by renewed interest in unions amid the ongoing pandemic, record inflation and a tight job market. While data on unions will take time to confirm, we’re seeing more strikes than usual and historic union action in sectors that are normally difficult to unify, such as retail, Black said.
For unions like Unifor, this time is “an opportunity,” Black said.
The convention is a good place for the union to discuss this moment to find out how to use its resources and political influence at this critical time for the labor movement, Black said. While the bribe scandal needs to be addressed, Black says the timing is a “great shame” and could deter the union from discussing other issues.
But overall, a contentious election is undeniably a good thing for Unifor, Black said, however controversial. Black believes the average ordinary worker will simply be relieved to put the scandal behind them and move on with a clean slate.
Savage agreed that the Dias scandal may not blow for the average worker. But it will be a tool used by employers and anti-union politicians to undermine labor efforts, he said.
Regardless of who gets elected, Black said, “there will be pressure… to make sure something like the Dias scandal doesn’t happen again.”
With files by Sara Mojtehedzadeh
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