Dias had been the face of Unifor since its inception, but allegations against him made public immediately after he stepped down have shadowed the union for months. On March 13, Unifor acknowledged an internal investigation into the labour leader had been underway since Jan. 26. Two weeks later, Unifor’s other elected leaders alleged the former president had taken $50,000 from a supplier of COVID-19 test kits he had helped promote to union employers. Dias said he was entering rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse the same day.
The 2022 constitutional convention, planned for Aug. 8 to 12 in Toronto, will be Unifor’s first contested presidential election since its founding convention in 2013 that brought together the Canadian Auto Workers union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union. Dias was elected with nearly 90 per cent of votes at the time, defeating a single challenger. At subsequent conventions in 2016 and 2019, he faced no competition and was acclaimed president for two additional three-year terms.
In the wake of the allegations against Dias, all three candidates say regaining member trust and rebuilding unity are among their top priorities. Unifor represents about 315,000 workers across all sectors in Canada, including 41,000 at auto assembly and plants operations.
Addressing rifts within the leadership will also be vital, Cassidy and Doherty said.
Minutes from National Executive Board (NEB) meetings from February through June, shared with union locals and obtained by Automotive News Canada, show clashes among the union’s 25-member leadership team on numerous issues, including the source of media leaks relating to the Dias investigation, the NEB’s initial endorsement of Doherty, and the decision to forego a special convention to replace Dias.
As the race enters its final stretch, Cassidy said the divide among both the leadership and rank-and-file within the union is “huge.”
“This is a big task to put Humpty Dumpty back together again when this is all over,” he told Automotive News Canada. “The reality is there needs to be a lot of reform happen, within the leadership first.”
Doherty, likewise, said divisions among union leaders over the previous five months have distracted Unifor from its focus on representing members.
“This incident with Jerry has kind of paralyzed us from doing the things that we normally do.”
But Doherty said he is confident a new leadership team will emerge from the convention with shared priorities, regardless of what candidate wins.
“I think everybody that’s running has good trade union values and knows the importance of us coming out [united].”
That does not mean the new president will not point the union in his or her own direction. Doherty said his plan is for a reunited Unifor, but one “very similar” to the union prior to Dias’ alleged violations of the union’s constitution.
Payne, meantime, said she is looking to adjust how the union’s national leadership interacts with locals.
“The big difference here, I see our union as about building working class power, not power around one person, or two people. We really have to get back to empowering our locals to be the best that they can be, and that means providing the resources that they need.”
Unifor delegates coming together for the first time since before the start of the pandemic will also prompt much-needed healing, Payne said.
“Unity is not something that’s automatic. It’s like solidarity. It doesn’t just happen, you actually have to build it.”
Along with the post of national president, Unifor’s five other elected leadership positions — secretary-treasurer and directorships of the union’s Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario and Western regions — are all up for grabs at the convention.
Both Payne and Doherty have assembled a team of candidates campaigning together for the full slate of positions. Voting, however, will take place for each post individually, as opposed to in blocks, meaning there is no guarantee either full campaign teams will be elected.
The elections are also just one piece of business at the five-day convention. Among a slate of regional caucus meetings, and debate over resolutions and constitutional amendments, Doherty said the union plans to share its new automotive policy Aug. 11.