Exclusive with Unifor President Jerry Dias
The Man Tasked with Reinvigorating the National Labour Movement
By Angus Gillespie
Without hesitation it is easy to ascertain the heyday of the manufacturing sector hit full throttle throughout the 1970s and 1980s and arguably into the early part of the 90s. But since those bustling good times has been a constant erosion of the industry due to any number of reasons, including but not limited to, the advent of newer technologies, market globalization and the often discriminating world of international economics.
The question on the minds of many Canadians who have been able to proper through enriched lives within the manufacturing industry is whether or not their children will also be able to depend upon it as a means of living for generations to come.
This past September, The Canadian Auto Workers Union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada formally merged to create Unifor, which is now by far the country’s largest private sector labour union. It had been assumed former CAW President Ken Lewenza would be the man to lead the unified group in championing the efforts to the manufacturing sector from coast to coast. But Lewenza realized the commitment to this new position would take a minimum of six years and decided it was best that he step aside and hand the reins over to someone else, preferring instead to opt for retirement after many years of leading the CAW through some epic battles with companies and governments alike.
For those uninvolved in the labour movement, the name Jerry Dias is not a household name – but that’s going to change – guaranteed. Dias is certainly very well known within the ranks of labour and was the hands-down choice as the man to succeed Lewenza. In fact, he received overwhelmingly endorsement from not only Lewenza and the CAW but also from CEP President David Coles, who like Lewenza, has opted for retirement.
Lewenza was the National President of the Canadian Auto Workers union after being acclaimed at the organization’s national convention on September 6, 2008, taking over for Buzz Hargrove, who replaced the first-ever CAW president Bob White. Lewenza had previously served as president of the CAW Local 444 in Windsor, Ont. Lewenza’s son, Ken Lewenza, Jr., is a former city councillor in Windsor who representing Ward 4 from 2006-2010. Lewenza Jr. also works for Chrysler and is active with Local 444.
Who is Jerry Dias?
So, who is Jerry Dias, and what can we expect from him as leader of Unifor? Can he realistically return the labour movement to the level of success it achieved for its thousands of employees in decades gone by? The Canadian Business Journal sat down with the energetic and often fiery leader on what happened to be his 55th birthday at a restaurant in the north end of Toronto.
“Unifor is here because it’s time to stop playing defence and it’s time we started to play offence,” Dias begins, with a big smile and enthusiasm that seemed as if he was ready to run a marathon.
The newly-formed super union represents more than 300,000 workers across about 20 sectors of the economy, primarily in manufacturing, communications and transportation although there is also significant representation in other such areas as health, education and transportation.
Dias says he plans to use Unifor’s immense size to influence a change in how labour relations are dealt with in this country. Originally from the Scarborough section of Toronto, he now resides in Milton, Ont., just west of Toronto. He and his wife have four children who range in age from 20 to 28, with the eldest three being daughters. Why Milton?
“It was the farthest I could get away from Toronto and still be able to commute,” Dias laughs.
“My wife works for Unifor and has been on staff for two and a half years, heading up the airline sector,” he continues. “I met her in Port Elgin where we have our education centre. It makes all the difference in the world having a partner that’s involved in the movement.”
Always athletic and energetic as a youngster, he played lots of hockey and football growing up and continues to focus heavily on physical fitness looking younger than his 55 years. He continued to play hockey up until the age of 50, but had to hang up the blades following hip replacement surgery five years ago.
Much like Ken Lewenza, whose father was the main influence on his life in the union movement, it’s exactly the same for Dias.
“I am my father’s son in name and nature,” he nods. “My father is Jerry Dias Sr.” The elder Dias was president of the local at de Havilland Aircraft in 1967 to 1978; ironically his son became president of the same local union in 1987.
Asked if his personality has changed over the past 20 years, the Unifor president says he’s been consistently the same all the way along.
“I’m every bit as emotional today as I was when I was 35 and have every bit the same energy today but I’m also much more hardened,” he reveals. “I remember in 1972 there was a nine-month strike at de Havilland Aircraft where the company was trying to eliminate the union,” Dias recalls. “I was at many of the bargaining committee meetings, watching and learning from a young age.”
Growing up in the culture it was a natural fit that Jerry Dias Jr. would follow in his father’s footsteps. His mother worked in a factory for a company called W.J. Gage, which was the old Toronto bookbinders’ union, which became the CEP, so it’s really all come full circle for Dias.
“My mother was from CEP; my father was from the CAW, so it’s appropriate that I’m the first president of Unifor,” Dias states.
He remained at the local union until 1993, after which he joined Ken Lewenza’s team at CAW headquarters. Dias was a young, enthusiastic, high-profile leader in the union when he was chairperson of the plant in the old UAW days.
“We had the first real major strike – when we formed the CAW – and it was at de Havilland, which was owned by Boeing at the time. We had a 10-week strike in 1987 which had led right up to the Big-3 bargaining where we had our real defining moment as a formation of a new Canadian union.”
The Heir Apparent
Dias quickly established himself as a leader within the ranks of labour and was earmarked as the man to be front and centre of many difficult negotiations. All of this was taking place when he was still a very young man, but one who had immense experience for a person of his age.
“We ended up getting wage increases for people; it was a huge victory for the CAW at the time and that led to Big-3 negotiations where Bob White (then CAW president) put the organization on the map,” Dias proudly mentions. “I was just 29 at the time and we had about 3,000 people in the de Havilland plant. I was brought up in that environment and was much more advanced as it related to collective bargaining.”
Dias’s’ mother raised four children while working in a factory because his father travelled so much and he credits her with keeping the family together as one cohesive unit.
“I learned a lot about the role of working women and the challenges and commitments between working life and family life,” he reveals. “I’m incredibly sensitive to women’s issues. My son and I do a major fundraiser for the two women’s shelters in Milton; we’ve raised about $125,000 in the last three years.
The fact that my son is involved is tremendous. Young people have to lead our future generations.”
Dias spent one year at York University in the late 1970s with the intention of becoming a physical education teacher. The plan was to work at de Havilland for the summer to save money for his sophomore year in school, but he wound up staying on the job. Dias’s son is now in his fourth year of university and wants to become – you guessed it – a physical education teacher.
“It’s funny how things revolve,” Dias chuckles. “I expect that he will be a teacher. But I absolutely know he will be involved in the teachers’ federations, no question about it. And my daughters also have incredible social consciences.”
When it came to looking for a replacement for Lewenza, Dias was his senior assistant, so internally there was always a comfort that he’d become the frontrunner to take over if Lewenza stepped down. There was no denying that transparent expectation.
“I don’t think it was much of a debate internally but I think the CEP understood that the first president (of Unifor) would likely come from the former CAW just because of our size and they respected that,” Dias tells us.
The retirement of Lewenza came as a huge surprise to many company leaders and union members. Even those closest to him were not convinced he would step aside until the very last minute. Such was the case with Dias as well.
“I wasn’t 100 per cent sure Ken was going to step down up until the time he made the formal announcement at our national executive meeting,” Dias confirms.
“He had wrestled with it for years. Ken really is a Windsor guy. He didn’t love Toronto, but he loved the union.”
One of the primary reasons Lewenza felt this was the time to step down was in knowing this newly created position would require an absolute minimum six-year commitment in order to stabilize the process and ensure all the proper pieces were put in place.
Dias bristles at the notion globalization is the answer to all the world’s economic ills, and more to the point, those here within Canada. In fact, he believes it’s already gone much too far and the pendulum needs to swing back in the direction of greater nationalism as a way to ensure jobs remain here in this country; in other words a greater degree of protectionism. It’s an interesting argument because valid points can be made from both sides in a debate. Regardless, it remains a constant lobbying effort with the federal and provincial governments. As of this publication there were 3,000 collective agreements in the new Unifor union with a current strike and lockout.
“You’ve got companies that are under tremendous pressure and they ought not to be,” Dias says. “Canadian companies don’t get the benefit of the doubt from the governments. It’s about let the biggest survive and who gives a damn about the small players. It’s a ridiculous mindset by the governments.”
There are a number of positives that Dias can point towards that reveals to his membership there is hope on the horizon for better days ahead. Ford Motor Co. just invested $700 million in the Oakville Assembly Plant and General Motors in Oshawa, Ont. announced it will be keeping one of its plants open two years longer than originally planned, which will keep 700 jobs going in that city. GM also made a $250 million investment at a plant in Ingersoll, Ont. and Chrysler is expected to put a major investment into the Windsor Assembly Plant where they make minivans according to Dias.
“There are certainly some positive signs as it relates to manufacturing, but ultimately we need an auto policy in Canada,” Dias points out. “Ford put in $700 million and the two levels of government put in $150 million each. It’s significant – I’m not suggesting that it’s not. But when you’ve got U.S. states that give Ford and GM a billion dollars, they are going to go to the United States. Those states are smart. Those states know that if they attract an assembly plant there’s jobs for years and years that bring in taxes and help build infrastructure.”
Ironically, another major boost is expected to emerge from the recent free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union. Our country, which currently exports about 13,000 vehicles a year to the EU, will be permitted to export up to 100,000 vehicles annually, provided they are at least 20 per cent manufactured in Canada. Vehicles with at least 50 per cent Canadian content will enter duty free and would not be subject to the quota.
Under the EU agreement, both countries will phase out tariffs on vehicles and parts over seven years. Canada’s tariff is 6.1 per cent on vehicles. Europe has a 10 per cent tariff on vehicles and a 4.5 per cent duty on parts. Canada has a large trade deficit in autos with Europe.
In a nutshell, Dias opines there are still many countries smarter than us when it comes to the ability of attracting new business. He feels the strategy to create jobs should largely be in the hands of government but says it’s sorely lacking.
2008 Economic Collapse
When the U.S. banking system suffered its major collapse along with a number of financial institutions in other western countries, it made for a very difficult time in the manufacturing industry. It’s a time period Dias certainly does not relish thinking about.
“During the economic recession of the last six years, I participated in more plant closure negotiations I bet than anybody else in the country,” he laments. “The collapse in the banking system led to the collapse of the auto industry.”
After pausing to think more about it, you could see a sense of frustration mounting on his face.
“One of the things that really drives me nuts is that people will say the auto industry got too fat; wasn’t building good cars; autoworkers did everything wrong.
That’s not true. The reality is, the reason the auto industry died is because the banking industry collapsed.”
The numbers certainly support Dias’s assertion. The auto industry went from selling 17 million vehicles in North America to about 7 million.
“When you take out more than 50 per cent of capacity, there’s going to be catastrophic consequences – and that’s what happened,” he states.
The auto industry has stabilized over the past couple of years, but Dias wants to see Canada do even more to ensure the sustainability of the sector.
“There’s an interesting balance between ensuring we get what we rightfully deserve and also creating an economic structure that puts people back to work.
We’re going to continue to grow because that creates inclusivity,” Dias responds. “Today people outside the union are saying ‘look what that person has – I want that’ and it’s becoming a growing theme with people demanding it. As we continue to grow, so does our influence.”
Another aspect that irks Dias is seeing many Canadians have to pick up and move far away from their roots in order to land good-paying jobs. He says he understands that sometimes it’s unavoidable, but most often believes that need not be the case. He wants to rebuild communities from coast to coast and keep as many people living in their home regions as possible.
“We have fishermen on the east coast that catch fish, but we shut down our fish processing plants and instead ship the fish to China to be processed and then we buy them back,” he says. “Does that make any sense to you? I walked through the oil sands in Fort McMurray; there was a huge population from the east coast. That’s wonderful. They are in good paying jobs and sending money back to their families but does it make sense that I have to leave my community.
Generations and decades and decades of families have lived on the east coast and worked in the fisheries industry. Are you telling me we can’t do that today?
Do we really have to get it processed in China?”
Making Canada No. 1
According to Dias, in order for substantive change to occur there needs to be the political will to do so and he’s not seeing it. But that unto itself may be the biggest battle for the Unifor union in this new era of globalization and free trade. Canada just recently announced two more significant trade agreements: one with the previously mentioned European Union and also an expanded accord with Chile that delves into the financial services sector.
Dias concedes that the primary reason why jobs are eliminated here and the work is processed elsewhere is because the labour costs are so much cheaper elsewhere. But he says that alone should not be the determining factor as to how we conduct business in this country.
“If we’re always going to chase the lowest common denominator in Canada, then we’ve got a problem,” he says, with conviction in his voice.
If Canada identifies all its strengths, including natural resources and education, we are without doubt one of the richest, most advanced nations in the world.
Dias believes we need to protect more of our resources and at the very least ensure that we profit most by it, rather than getting the short end of the stick.
“People may question some things unions may do but the overwhelming majority of Canadians say that Canada would be much worse off if it wasn’t for unions,” he pronounces.
Dias sees the unions as being voices for the communities, as a whole. He says it’s because of the need for cohesiveness within a municipality. He also believes the adversities of the 1970s and 1980s were in many ways no different from today.
“The difference between today and the ’70s and ’80s is that union density was increasing back then as was the standard of living,” he notes. “As union density has been decreasing over the past 15 to 20 years so has security from the working class and the levelling out of the level class and one could argue the elimination of the middle class. Unions raise the standard of living for non union members as well.”
“For the past 20 to 25 years we’ve been told globalization is our ticket to freedom,” Dias points out. “Do you honestly think young people today believe that to be correct? They’ve got four years of university and $50,000 in debt and they’re working at fast-food restaurants still living in their parents’ basements.”
The business community has a strong sense of what is needed for their enterprise to be successful. Dias would like nothing better than to see the Canadian dollar lose strength against the U.S. greenback in order for our exports to appreciably increase. He says the ideal range would be between 80 and 85 cents – not near par where it now hovers. Dias also says it’s about working together and not individual greed that will lead to overall national success and he wasn’t shy about giving a specific example.
“Me, as a trade union leader, I want the companies to be successful,” he states. “I’m much different than the Kevin O’Leary types in this world. Kevin O’Leary wants companies to be successful so that he can have a return on his individual investment. He is selfish. It’s a self-driven motivation. I want companies to do well so that they’ll reinvest and create more jobs.”
Many years from now, when all is said and done and history evaluates the performance of Unifor President Jerry Dias, what will he have needed to accomplish for him to have considered his time as leader a complete success?
“I want to have 300,000 members saying they are proud of their organization,” he begins. “Secondly, I want the economy to be much stronger than it is today because that would mean we were able to mobilize people in the communities and I would want people in all sectors to be proud of what they do because they had become good paying jobs. I want young people to say Unifor pushed the governments to understand that they are important too. But I’m not going anywhere for a long time. We’ve got a lot of work to do. At the end of the day, if I can unite the middle class then I will have been incredibly successful.”
Dias manages to keep 100 per cent focused on the stressful, high-profile job at hand despite the fact he has so much on his mind regarding his elderly parents. His father is 83 and had hip replacement surgery in May and his mother now lives in a long-term care facility dealing with severe dementia and Alzheimer’s. This was the time during our lengthy casual interview when he became most emotional.
“You want to talk about mixed emotions? The day that Ken announced to our national executive board that he was not going to seek the presidency of Unifor, my father and three sisters were taking my mother into the long-term care facility, so… (long pause)… that was a tough day for me,” while shaking his head, choking back outward emotion creeping to the surface about that very recent difficult memory. “So, if there’s a disappointment, it’s that my mother wasn’t at the founding convention because she had such a huge influence on my life. That was a tough one… that was real tough.”
And with that, Dias composed himself, taking a deep breath and putting on a big smile, stating he was heading off to take care of some business first and then spend the rest of his birthday visiting his mother in the afternoon and enjoying an evening with his father, who he hadn’t seen in about six weeks. The most cherished union of all – family.
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