'Young people have been completely betrayed by Canada:' A conversation with Unifor President Jerry Dias

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Image: Unifor

Jerry Dias is hungry. After a month of trying to schedule something between the new Unifor president’s constant meetings and appearances I’ve finally got him on a crackling line that is, unsurprisingly, in his car. He’s ferrying between a meeting and going out for dinner. "It’s been crazy," laughed Dias. "I’ve been running all over the place."

Setting up this interview with new Unifor president was no easy feat -- the man is understandably busy after taking the reigns of the largest private trade union in Canada just over a month ago.

When Dias was elected, he set out an ambitious course for what the leadership of Unifor was going to try and accomplish. Now just over a month on the job, he’s continuing to drive a strong message forward. I spoke to him about his plans for Unifor going forward.

This is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

 

The convention set a really strong message of what Unifor is going to be. Have the last few weeks been developing that message and getting a sense of what the members want from you?

There’s no question. I’m trying to outreach to as many members as we can, while at the same time developing the role that we’re going to have in the communities.

For example, September 28 I did two community events. I did my Hope in High Heels walk where my son and myself raised $50,000 for two women’s shelters in Halton region. We probably had about 100 men marching with us, many of them from the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) but many from the community. These are the things that our organization needs to do for the community so people understand we’re not just about collective bargaining. We’re about much broader social issues.

 

How big a role are community coalitions going to play in Unifor going forward?

They’re critical. Let me break down what it is I’m trying to accomplish as it relates to community groups.

In order for the trade union movement to be successful, I’m talking about implementing an agenda of bringing communities along with us as it relates to jobs. That means that we need to expand the dialogue outside of our union halls… so really it is question of coalition building and it is a question of getting similar and like-minded people together and having a discussion about how we move the agenda forward. So there is no question that our outreach will be more significant then it ever was.

 

One of the things that was announced at the Unifor convention was the $10 million earmarked to organize new workers. Is that part of that the community chapters or is part of that going to support this coalition building?

A lot of that is going to be built on basic organizing. For example, we’re going to have a major push on organizing Toyota [workers]. We are going through a real strategic evaluation of industries that are out there…industries out there where frankly the workers can do better.

We’re also planning on spending a lot of the $10 million including young people in the movement and asking, how do we talk to young people in non-traditional trades or non-traditional unionized environments about joining the organization? Because they are the ones who today are the most disillusioned.

The $10 million will be spent strictly on organizing. That will not be spent on community-based chapters -- they will be self-sufficient.

 

What’s your take on the recent unemployment report that ranked Ontario really poorly in youth unemployment?

Young people have been completely betrayed by Canada.

In August I think about 60,000 jobs were created, but the problem is of course that 70 per cent are precarious jobs, contract jobs, part time jobs. The worst and the most staggering figure that came out of that is that a majority of those jobs were taken by people 55 and over -- and this is August job count.

August is when school is out, young people are working and subsidizing their education. So the fact that those jobs were taken by people 55 and over really shows how much we’ve fallen and it really shows why young people today are frustrated -- because they have given up hope.

 

Part of what you must be looking at is how you plug into the youth movement and how you get people excited about unions again.

People are very excited about what we’re trying to accomplish because they see that we’re trying to connect the links between the workplaces and the community and the roles that both of them have. A strong community has a strong unionized base.

 

The other thing I wanted to ask you about, because it was such a big part of the convention, was Naomi Klein’s challenge to the labour movement about taking up the cause of climate change. What was your reaction on hearing that speech?

There clearly has to be a connection between the environment and the economy and there has to be a sensible dialogue between the two. I mean, the reality is that we’re building cars.

There’s got to be a balance between environment and economy. We can’t have one without the other.

The environmental movement understands and needs to understand that we need jobs. One can argue that building cars are necessary for equal standard of living, and one will argue that you will need an east west pipeline in order to create refineries.

We just need to make sure that everything we do is in an environmentally sustainable way. We need to make sure that there is a lot of dialogue between the two because I don’t buy the arguments that you must have one or the other. I think there is a way for everyone to coexist.

 

The World Trade Organization (WTO) recently struck down the green energy legislation in Ontario that would have created green jobs. So how do you fight against that global pressure that can threaten Canadian jobs?

A lot of strong economies tell the WTO to get lost. There are only so many nations that play by the rules. We seem to be the puritans in the debate.

They want us to think [US President Barack] Obama is going to say, "sorry, I’m going to let a bunch of faceless bureaucrats in Geneva determine the fate of our nation?"

We need to think about what it is going to do to build a sustainable nation so we need to be a little stronger and a little tougher.

 

The next Unifor convention is in three years. If you’ve got one goal crossed off your list by the time that comes around what would it be?

Within the next year I’ve got several goals, but the big thing will be to elevate the plight of young people…so if there’s anything that we are going to accomplish over the next three years, we’re going to make young people know that trade union movement and Unifor is a voice for them.

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