Jerry Dias reflects on Unifor's first three years

Photo: Flickr / uniforcanada

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When Jerry Dias was elected president of Unifor in 2013 at its founding convention, he had an ambitious agenda that included prioritizing organizing of young and precarious workers and pushing $10 million into new organizing efforts.

Not even a year into the new union's founding, he had announced a new organizing drive at Toyota plants in Woodstock and Cambridge, Ont., and wouldn't endorse the Ontario NDP in the 2014 provincial election, instead encouraging members to vote for candidates who had the best shot of unseating Conservatives.

Three years later, as Unifor wraps its second union convention, much has changed. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a keynote speaker at the event, a far cry from when Conservative politicians didn't attend the bipartisan Good Jobs Summit, according to Dias.

But the Toyota plants, which Canadian Business described in 2014 as the first real test for Unifor, remains without a union.

rabble spoke with Dias about the last three years of organizing, and what comes next for Unifor. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

Thinking back to the first Unifor convention -- did you think at that time you would get to a place where the prime minister would actually be coming to speak at the convention?

Well, there was no way the last prime minister would have been invited. We were born three years ago with very high expectations that not only would we excel at collective bargaining, but we were going to play a major role in the politics of the country and I think to that extent we have been incredibly successful.

If you take a look at when we were born, Tim Hudak was leading in the polls in the province of Ontario, running on a Right-to-Work Platform.

We had Stephen Harper with a majority government under his belt. So that's what we were facing when we were born three years ago. Today there are changes, obviously.

Needless to say, we're in a much better place today than we were three years ago and as an organization we are feeling very confident that we played a role in achieving all of those.

 

There was criticism during the federal election about whether the union was going to support the NDP or not. At the end of the day do you think that that the right party is in power now?

Our union took the position of strategic voting because we believe that the survival of the labour movement was of the utmost priority at the time the election was called. We spent a ton of money on third-party advertising. What we were saying was anybody but Harper, because Harper had a majority government and we knew if he ended up in another majority government he was coming right after the labour movement.

We took the position that we were supporting all the incumbent New Democrats and in the remaining seats anybody who was best positioned to defeat a Conservative.

 

Now that it's the Liberal government in charge, have they been supportive of your organizing efforts?

All I can do is take a look at where we're at today. They've been in power for 10 months. They have legislation before the House to repeal Bill C-525 and Bill C-377. They've made, I would argue, the largest and probably the biggest social gain we've had in Canada in 30 years with the improvement to CPP. There's been some improvements on EI, which is significant. It's a good start. Let's put it that way.

But there's going to be some major issues that still need to be dealt with. I mean we still need to renegotiate the health-care accord. What about pharmacare? The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a complete Conservative trade deal, which is a complete disaster, is still alive and kicking. I mean obviously people are waiting to see what happens to the United States, but it's a flawed deal.

But regardless of the challenges and the arguments that we will have with them, their worst day will be better than the Stephen Harper government's best day in our eyes, because the Harper government was ideologically right-wing extreme, and they were a complete utter disaster on every front.

 

I want to go back to that convention three years ago. At that time you had announced $10 million for new organizing efforts.

We've organized more workers in three years than any other union in Canada. We brought in 15,000 new members to our union in three years, which is huge.

 

Where have most of those gains been made?

All over the place. For example, the largest organizing victory in over two decades -- actually three decades -- was at Casino Rama in Orillia. That was the largest individual victory.

There's no one sector. It really is a scattered approach. We are organizing workers in the auto parts industry. We're organizing everything from manufacturing to service.

 

It was about two years ago now you had announced that you were trying to organize the Toyota plants in Cambridge and Woodstock. They still haven't organized. What's happening there?

We were very close. We took a vote with just the skilled trades and we just missed.

We still have an organizing drive going on. There are significant organizing drives going on there -- but I think what is going to make a huge difference is going to be this set of Detroit Three bargaining. Whatever we bargain in the Detroit Three, Toyota is going to have to give those workers in Woodstock and Cambridge. Because if they don't give it to them then the workers in Woodstock and Cambridge will realize that they need a union in order to get it.

We are arguing in this set of negotiations that there will not be a deal with the Detroit Three until we solidify the footprint. So General Motors is going to have to agree to a new vehicle in Oshawa. Ford is going to have to agree to a new engine in Windsor. Chrysler is going to have to agree to solidify the footprint in Brampton. These are the same problems that the workers are dealing with in Toyota, because it's already been announced that the Corolla is leaving their facilities. The Corolla is their number 1 selling vehicle in North America. That can't be replaced.

 

So if the big three goes well, you think you'll have a stronger chance of being able to organize and get a union into the Toyota plants.

There's no question. The Toyota workers will watch our bargaining and realize that they have to depend on our bargaining prowess in order to get raises. Within Toyota they have a large percent of temporary workers, contract workers who have been there for years. They will see, coming out of Detroit Three bargaining, that there's a better way to do things -- that they don't have to be contract workers. They can be full-time employees within Toyota, but they need a union in order to do that.

 

I want to talk a little too about some of your more non-traditional organizing efforts.

It is absolutely taking on a life of its own and we are organizing more non-union workers into community chapters so that they can participate in the economic debate in this country as well as the political debate. And we're also obviously helping them to organize and co-ordinate their activities. That has been a real incredible victory for us and an incredible positive learning experience and initiative for Unifor.

 

Is there anything from that experience that you're changing about the community chapters -- that you've learned doesn't work?

No. I think it's just a question about how we approach things and I think that it took a little while to gain some traction because it's something different. So it really has taken a lot of time for us to explain to people what it's all about; how we can help; how we can help them help themselves. So it's not a type of a project that you launch without a lot of work. These types of products take a lot of behind the scenes background work meetings in order for people to understand what it is we're trying to accomplish. But it has been an incredible success.

 

What do you hope to have accomplished by the next convention in three years?

 Let's talk about the political front for starters. We have a government in place that we can talk to. Are we going to fight? The answer is yes. But I also believe that we have at least a solid foundation to start to have some good discussion.

Going back to the pre-Harper years is not good enough. That's a good start but that doesn't create the type of progressive Canada that we desire or frankly Canadians want. So it really is about pushing the political agenda on important issues.

The next three years is going to be about pushing the political agenda to ensure that Canadians have a voice. Closer to home we're going to make sure that we utilize our strength as the largest private sector union to make sure that we engage for our members at the bargaining table, both economically but in job security as well. So it really is about continuing and pushing the envelope and becoming even a stronger union than we have been over the last three years.

 

H.G. Watson is the associate editor at J-source magazine and former rabble labour intern. Follow her on Twitter @HG_Watson

Photo: Flickr / uniforcanada

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