One year in: Jerry Dias on Unifor's first year and its future

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Photo: twitter/@ptbolabour

It's been just over a year since the formation of Unifor on Labour Day of 2013. Last weekend, the union held the Good Jobs Summit, where the Unifor's first president, Jerry Dias, spoke several times about the importance of reaching out to all sectors to keep and create more good jobs. 

Speakers at the summit came from the realms of business and politics. They included prominent Liberal politicians like Wynne and Justin Trudeau, leading some to speculate that Unifor might be breaking their traditional ties with the NDP. But Dias says no.

"I am going to think about the labour movement first," he explained.

Dias spoke with about the state of the labour movement, creating good jobs, what Unifor has accomplished in its first year and what it plans to accomplish in the future. This interview has been edited and condensed.

It's been just over a year [since Unifor's founding convention]. How are you feeling?

I'm feeling great. It's been a year of real challenge; it's been a real year of Unifor forging our own identity -- who are we? What type of organization are we going to be?

We're going to be an organization that, frankly, is not going to take any crap. We're an organization that is bargaining hard; we are very successful at the bargaining table; we are negotiating real money for our members but we are also challenging the corporate agenda right across the country. That also includes challenging the government agenda.

I think it was an incredible victory for the labour movement when [Tim] Hudak, [the former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives] was defeated. We played a huge role in that as an organization. We were so politically in tune, engaging our members. We made that sure that we were exposing the attack on working class people, so I think that's the first time in quite a while that the entire labour movement came together in Ontario.

The defeat of Hudak was also a defeat of that ideology, so it forces right wing governments and parties to second guess whether a bold-faced attack on the labour movement is in their best interest.

But then there is the whole issue of engaging our members leading up to the next federal election. There is no question this is a government with no strategy here. We host a good jobs summit -- because they wouldn't even think of doing it -- and we invited politicians from all the parties.

So you did invite people from the Conservative party?

The Tories never showed up, Liberals showed up, NDP showed up. It was interesting to see who was here -- who came from the business community. These are the who's who of the business community in Canada. I would suggest to you that Elyse Allan, [CEO of GE Canada], is the highest profile woman CEO in the country, no question about it.

...and you had the fifth richest man in Canada too.

Jim Irving… this is a family that knows how to create jobs, they know how to create wealth. So when you bring together a cross section like that, it's what we need to do.

I said in my closing remarks… Harper, if you can imagine, got rid of all these industry councils -- wiped them right out. So there are so many issues, but nobody wants to have the discussion, and they don't want to have the discussion because to them, they say listen -- we're just going to let the business community do whatever the hell they want to do and jobs will be created as a result of that. Jobs are being created but they are all part-time.

The good jobs summit was really about the start of the discussion because people have to look candidly and say, "if all of these people understand the issue and all of these people understand that we all need to get together to talk about solutions, why doesn't the government get it?"

One of your main speakers was actually the Liberal Premier of Ontario. A lot of people are saying that Unifor is stepping away from the NDP support that has been traditional for unions. Do you see it that way?

No. We had more boots on the ground in the last provincial election for the NDP than any other Union by far. The argument becomes [are] we going to support the NDP even in a riding where they don't have a hope in hell or is the priority defeating Harper? The priority has to be defeating Harper.

Let me tell you candidly -- the last Ontario provincial election I was completely infuriated because the NDP joined with the Conservatives. That was not very strategic. They talk about us doing strategic voting, but that was strategic on their part, to join with Tim Hudak to bring down the most progressive budget in the history of Ontario, at a time when Tim Hudak was leading in the polls.

Do you get the sense that the same thing is happening with the federal NDP or is there a difference between the two government levels?

I think there is a difference. I think NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is taking a much more aggressive position that Andrea Horwath, the NDP's Ontario leader, did. I think he is doing that as a result of how poorly Andrea did.

I disagree with their position on South Korea but that's in essence their right to make their own decision. They are not going to call me and ask my opinion and then make their decision on what I say, they are going to make a decision based on what is best for the party. I am going to make decisions on what I think is best for Unifor and the labour movement.

The Conservatives since then have taken the position -- and you are taking credit for it anyway -- that unions really caused their downfall in the Ontario election. Do you think the image of unions are changing? We talked about this before, that unions seem to have an image problem.

I think we got a little too relaxed. I think we were a little too comfortable at just representing our own members and not caring about anything that happened around us.

I think the labour movement is changing and changing significantly. You are going to find that Unifor especially understand the importance of the relationship with our community partners. We understand the importance of getting out, demonstrating and working with different groups that aren't unionized. We understand by bringing in community chapters that in order for the labour movement to continue to grow, that will happen when we have the respect of the community around us.

How do you feel the community chapters are going? I know that it has been an evolving process.

It's moving along. It's complex. We have a bunch of things to work on; first of all, what can we offer people? We want to offer them benefits so if you join a community chapter you can buy benefits because so many precarious workers have no access to benefits. So then it is trying to bring together people collectively that aren't a part of a collective. It really is about getting unorganized workers or getting workers who are precarious in many areas and getting them together to say, "how we are going to do this?"

The other big campaign was the Toyota campaign and I was curious where that was at?

We're back at it -- things just slowed down a little bit but now we're right back at it.

At the time when you made the request to certify and then it turned out [not enough cards were signed] there were some accusations that it was done purposely to get the list of employees. Is that what happened?

Organizing is difficult when you don't know the exact number. We believed that we had well over 40 per cent when we applied, but when we found out very quickly that there numbers were higher we pulled back. There is no question about it; part of it was the fact that we were playing in the dark. But we got our hands on the list so now we know exactly what we need to do. So was that a part of overall strategic plan to get the list? Not entirely.

What do you think your biggest takeaway is going to be from this weekend?

The biggest takeaway is that very much of the corporate community also understand the importance of us having this discussion. They don't like the idea that the academic community isn't working hand in hand with all of the stakeholders including government so that we can prepare for the future. They are frustrated that all these industry councils have been eliminated because they wanted the opportunity to speak to government. They understand the importance of getting colleges and universities in the room to have a joint solution so they are frustrated as well.

What you think needs to happen within the labour movement between unions to expand organizing?

The first thing that we had to do as a labour movement in my opinion was recognize that we were losing a lot of steam. That's why you can end up with three successive Harper governments with the last one being a majority. All the optics and all the number -- everything was going in the wrong direction so we had to change the labour movement so we first had to look internally and say, "ok we need a change." That led to Hassan Yussuff being elected.

Now that we have the change, how do we work more collaboratively and how do we be more aggressive? I would suggest we could organize more members to join the union movement when we first organize ourselves. Because I'll tell you, if you want to screw up an organizing drive, if I'm trying to organize your workplace and you go and speak to your neighbour and say, "Hey Unifor is looking to organize my workplace what do you think as a Unifor member?" The organizing drive is dead if the Unifor member says, "terrible union. They are not doing a good job representing me."

So the first job the labour movement has to do is organize itself first and then we'll organize new employees. 

Photo: twitter/@ptbolabour

H.G. Watson is a multimedia journalist currently based in Toronto. She was's labour intern for 2013-14, and now works at Daily Xtra.

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