Unifor officially takes shape at historic union convention

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Check out a Storify.com version of this story below. For live updates from convention, follow @rabbleca on Twitter. H.G. Watson is reporting from Toronto for the weekend. 

 In an event befitting the historic creation of one of the biggest private sector unions in Canada, Unifor came to life Saturday in the largest hall of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, surrounded by giant video screens and just a touch of spectacle.

As expected, the Unifor constitution was overwhelmingly accepted by members of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, with just over 94 per cent voting in favour of adopting the new constitution.

In an impassioned speech, new union president Jerry Dias told delegates that Unifor is going to fight to save a rapidly changing country. "Canada is failing us all," he said, pointing out the decline in permanent jobs and growing financial inequality as factors that drove the creation of Unifor.

Dias promised active political work on several fronts, including militant activism if necessary to protect the Rand formula and stop Bill C-377, a private members bill requiring greater union transparency that will go back to the House of Commons this fall after the Senate rejected the bill for being too stringent and having several issues related to privacy.

Dias told reporters after his speech that he and the Canadian Labour Congress will continue to strongly oppose the bill, though he wasn't willing to speculate what action might occur should the bill pass.

Dias was the clear star at the convention, bringing the entire crowd to its feet amid cheers of "Jerry!" several times over. However, in a surprising development, his nomination did not go unchallenged. Lindsay Hinshelwood, a member of the former CAW local 707 in Oakville, Ont., ran against Dias.

"This is our founding convention, and this is an opportunity to challenge the top and it had to be done," she said, explaining she was motivated by the hopes of cracking what she calls the "old boys club" of the leadership. Hinshelwood ended up garnering just over 17 per cent of the vote. "That's a strong message to the experienced leadership that 20 per cent [sic] of their delegates that want change."

Diversity was a topic on everyone's mind early in the convention after Kerry–Ann Taylor, a delegate from former CEP local 232 in Ottawa, rose to address the lack of representation from women and people of colour as speakers during day one of the convention. Other members from her local spoke out in support of her statements later in the afternoon.

"It was just burning me up," she said "Today it was man after man talking about how good the union was and how representative it was. I was like, 'no, you're not representing me.'" Dave Coles, outgoing president of CEP, promised that delegates would be impressed by the diversity of the incoming national executive board.

As the newly elected board stands currently, 11 members are women and 14 are men. One, Ruth Pryce, the racialized and Indigenous workers representative, is a person of colour. Unifor's constitution requires that the gender composition of the national executive be proportional to gender representation of the union. Unifor has 86,000 female members, about a third of their 300,000 workers.

Dias echoed Coles sentiments but acknowledged that one person of colour on the national executive board was not enough. "We need to work," he said. "We're going to make sure that there is more than ample room for our members in this union and for leadership positions."

The convention generated a lot of social media traffic, with #unifor trending throughout the day on Twitter. 



On Sunday at the Unifor convention we continue our coverage with speeches from author Naomi Klein, comedian Mary Walsh and a breakdown of what exactly community chapters are.

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