By Joanna Pachner, Special to the Star | Sat., Feb. 20, 2021
Joanna Pachner is a business writer and a freelance contributor for the Star.
When 20-year-old Jerry Dias Jr. became a shop steward at the Downsview de Havilland plant, close to 40 per cent of Canadian workers were union members. That number has dwindled to below 30 per cent, but Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, has seen its membership grow under Dias’s leadership. The pugnacious negotiator may strike fear in CEOs and Conservative politicians, but even his enemies credit his tenacity and passionate rhetoric, both on ample display in recent months. We caught up with Dias, Unifor’s national president, during a break in airline bailout discussions.
What’s the latest on the talks with Transport Canada?
The federal government understands they have to do something, and something severe. My argument is that what they do has to be specific to domestic carriers — for example, freezing the fuel tax for Canadian carriers, and picking up the extra fees of Nav Canada, the company that runs Canada’s air traffic control system. We can’t talk about “build back better” if we don’t have an airline sector.
How has Unifor been approaching its dealings with airlines around the layoffs?
Our conversations are blunt. I understand the serious challenges, but they can do better to mitigate the impact on people by offering early-retirement incentive packages, worksharing programs. Their preoccupation now is survival so they’re not spending much time on solutions for employees. We’re not seeing the type of co-operation I would expect and I’m frustrated.
Airline workers, of course, are not your only service-sector members who’ve had an awful year.
I’ve probably got 10,000 out of my 315,000 members on layoff. But the pandemic has given us an understanding of who the essential workers in this country are — grocery store workers, health-care workers, transit drivers — and they have been betrayed. This crisis has exposed the slimy underbelly of raw capital. Galen Weston, who should be ashamed of himself, sits on $8.5 billion of wealth and cuts off pandemic pay after two months even though they (Loblaw) have done better than pre-pandemic. Personal support workers are working in two or three long-term-care facilities and many make little above minimum wage. Disgusting.
Which governments have done the best and worst job during this crisis in your view?
It’s a mixed bag. There was no template saying, “In case of a pandemic, do this,” but why were we so unprepared? It was under Stephen Harper that all the potential vaccine manufacturers left Canada, but successive governments haven’t fixed the crimes of others. The federal government moved quickly to introduce CERB, which was huge. The introduction of the wage subsidy was huge, but it was flawed. The loan program for corporations also didn’t work because the interest rates were exorbitant.
As for the Ontario government, there’s a crisis in long-term care and they get an F for passing legislation that prevents families from suing facilities unless they are grossly negligent. They talked about giving four hours of care per resident per day, four or five years down the road. Are you kidding? That has to be done immediately. That said, when I did the deal with the Detroit Three (General Motors Company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ford Motor Company), federal and provincial governments were quick to say they would be part of the solution. That’s a huge change for Doug Ford.
Where should Ottawa’s future focus lie? Give me your top three priorities.
We need a just transition to a green economy and to find solutions for the oil and gas industry. We need a real Buy Canadian strategy. The $100 billion a year we have in procurement should be spent on putting Canadians to work. And three is the issue of infrastructure spending that relies on Canadian raw materials and natural resources.
Let’s talk about your white-collar members. Working from home has created issues around ergonomics, mental health and worker safety. Do you see these becoming negotiation points?
No question. This isn’t the first discussion about work at home. Years ago, employers wanted to save on real estate so they had people work at home, but many found that productivity dropped so they brought them back. Now the pendulum swings. People are sick of looking at the same four walls and I think the issues around mental illness and increased stress stem from the blurred lines between home and work.
What would you consider Unifor’s biggest win over the past year?
The Detroit Three negotiations. We bargained a $6-billion deal in a pandemic. Until then, of the $300 billion they had announced for electric vehicles, not one nickel had been allocated to Canada. We now have billions and a stable industry. You have to get in now or risk being left out altogether. Remember, the key ingredients in electric batteries are magnesium, cobalt, aluminum and nickel. We are one of few nations that has all four, so why wouldn’t we use our raw materials? We’re finally having the debate about getting away from being suppliers of raw materials and natural resources to others and buying the finished product to actually using these resources to put Canadians to work.
There has to be a bigger debate about China. If China wants to ship Chinese-built vehicles with Chinese-built auto parts to the North American market, what do we get out of it? The worst thing for Canadian jobs are bad trade deals, and the worst of the worst was the free trade deal with Korea. Same thing with Japan: The Trans-Pacific Partnership gives them full access to our market and we sell squat. We’ve got to be more strategic. This passive Boy Scout approach hasn’t done well.
What do you consider your biggest personal milestone — the fight over the Oshawa plant?
Yeah. It was personal for me because it happened on my watch and my family lives there. There were 30,000 direct and indirect jobs tied into that, so when the closure was announced in November 2018, it was a devastating blow to the community.
That plant has a personal meaning for me, too. When my family immigrated from Eastern Europe, my dad got a job on the line at the Oshawa plant because it offered great pay when he couldn’t get work in his profession. He stayed until he retired, but he was no fan of the union because he believed your demands would drive investment away.
I respectfully disagree with your father. Every day for us is David versus Goliath. If you don’t push, you get trampled. The thinnest book in the world is the book of corporate ethics.
You’ve been called the $5-billion man for negotiating auto deals. Now it’s $6 billion. Can you share some negotiating tips?
Follow your gut. Your first instincts are generally best. But you need to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. I’ve been around a long time so people know when I’m not moving from my position. The key is relationships and people understanding you’re not frickin’ kidding.
Did you ever consider moving to the other side of the table?
Never. I’ve had offers, from which I derived significant humour. Working-class people have trusted me my entire life and I’m not about to mess with that for the sake of a few bucks.
This interview has been edited and condensed.