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Unifor president Dias has had quite the year

I caught up with recently with the Toronto Star Wheels’ Newsmaker of the Year, Jerry Dias, and chatted about the past year, his career, automaking in general, and politics.

  • dias with trudeau

When 2016 started, veteran observers of the Canadian automobile industry were convinced it would end badly, that one or more strikes against the Big Three automakers would materialize along with more job losses.

But, as the year ends, all is well. Contracts negotiated and signed between General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Unifor — a trade union incorporating the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada — included specific employment guarantees as well as increased investment in auto manufacturing plants around Ontario.

For this, Jerry Dias, 58, president of Unifor, has been selected as Toronto Star Wheels’ Newsmaker of the Year.

In being named to this Honour Roll, he joins Sergio Marchionne, Canadian-educated CEO of FCA who was successful in improving the financial health of the two companies; singer Neil Young for promoting the use of alternative fuels; Carlo Fidani, Ron Fellows and Myles Brandt for much-needed improvements at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, and Multimatic Engineering of Markham for contributions in general to all facets of the auto industry.

I caught up with Dias recently for a chat about the past year, his career, automaking in general, and politics. Among his observations:

∙He was confident of success in all three negotiations but was afraid there would be a strike at GM;

∙He thinks the time is right for more government investment that would create thousands of jobs;

∙The future looks bright for the labour movement as more people suffer as a result of globalization.

∙He is not a fan of Donald Trump but says he’s right about one thing.

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Here is a transcript of our conversation.

Norris McDonald: When the year started, and you knew you were in for a fight, were you optimistic or apprehensive?

Jerry Dias: At the beginning of the year, I knew we were going to get it done. The only question was when. I have to admit, I thought we were going to have a strike at General Motors. GM is a tough company. GM was quite specific that there would be no discussions about product until after we had a ratified collective agreement, and that just wasn’t going to fly. I knew we were going to find solutions; I just didn’t know that they would all happen prior to the strike deadlines.

Was I pleased? The answer is yes. But we were very consistent with our messaging in all of our conversations with General Motors. Very early on, we met with Mary Barra (chairperson and CEO of GM). We told her there wouldn’t be an agreement unless we had a solution for Oshawa.

When you deal with global companies, you have to deal with them straight forward. You can’t mix your words, you can’t send mixed messages, you have to be straight forward so everybody understood what was in play.

I think GM, to their credit, took a look at this Oshawa complex and realized what, in fact, they had. This complex wins almost all of the awards every year for quality and productivity, and so they understood. I think, when push came to shove, they were as determined to find a solution as we were.

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NM: Do you exercise? When you go into a big negotiation, you have to be physically and mentally prepared for a marathon, don’t you?

JD: Yes, I work out, but I’ve been bad for the last six months. I used to work out six days a week. But I keep myself in pretty good shape. I watch what I eat. I want to debunk the image of the 350-pound union leader who smokes cigars. It’s not my style.

But I’ve been around long enough to know that the last 36, 48 hours — whenever — can be difficult, so if I have a few quiet moments, I disappear and I relax. I take advantage of the moments I have to recharge. If I have a 20-minute nap, I’m as good as new.

The last 48 hours are always interesting. That time period scares the hell out of most people, but I look forward to it. I’m really focused on the art of the deal. I’m really focused on how you get it done.

There’s a tight balance; all three of these negotiations came right to the deadline. This was all about our members’ jobs, this was about the short term and the long term. It was about seeing the exodus of our industry. This was knowing that the GM plant that we’re sitting in front of today was closing in 2018; this was about finding money to refurbish the paint shop in Brampton; this was about finding a new engine program for Windsor. So, we had some huge, huge issues we had to deal with and we were successful in doing that.

Jerry Dias union

Unifor president Jerry Dias poses out front of the GM assembly plant in Oshawa on December 5, 2016. Cole Burston/Toronto Star

NM: We’re sitting in front of General Motors, and we’re conducting this interview in a GM product (a Chevrolet Tahoe). Do you have a Ford and a Chrysler product when you go to their plants …

JD: I just have the GM now, but my previous five vehicles were all Chryslers. And my three vehicles prior to that were Fords. So, I’ve kinda bounced between. There are a lot of GM, Ford and Chrysler vehicles within the family.

NM: Where and why did you get interested in union work?

JD: My father was president of my local union, Local 112, from 1967 until 1978. I became president of that same Local union nine years later. It was at de Havilland aircraft in Downsview. I was raised in the union. I remember the strike in 1972 — my father was president of the local, the strike was nine months long. And he would have meetings with the bargaining committee right in our house. My job was to make them all toasted bacon and tomato sandwiches.

I sat there and listened. I was raised in the environment. My mother was a machine operator. She made envelopes at W.J. Gage. So my parents were just working-class people, and I was raised in a blue-collar family, and we talked about the union all the time.

It’s funny. Even as a kid growing up, if people came to visit — family, friends — and they drove an offshore vehicle, they had to park on the road. My father wouldn’t let them park in the driveway. That’s just the way he was, and he’s still like that today. He’s 86 years old, and let me tell you, he doesn’t mix words …

NM: How did you get to where you are today?

JD: I was president of the Local at a time when de Havilland aircraft was owned by Boeing. Boeing was selling the plant to a European consortium, ATR (a French-Italian aircraft manufacturer), that was their direct competitor. Why? We were launching the Dash 8 program and ATR had launched the ATR 72 and they wanted to close our plant.

So, we led one heck of a fight, and we had Mulroney’s government — Michael Wilson was the finance minister at the time — block the sale because it wasn’t in the best interests of Canada. And that was the first time in the history of Canada that a sale was ever blocked by the federal government. So, that really got me motivated and determined.

I learned that if you fight, you can win. I was a young Local union leader at the time, and there was no question that I had name recognition. Through my father, I had known Bob White and Buzz Hargrove since I was a kid growing up and they knew who I was and they understood I was now the president of one of the largest Locals in the union. So, I had an advantage over the others, because, a) they knew who I was, but b) I knew what I was doing. I was trained from a very young age, and that gave me an advantage that others didn’t have.

Also Read: Chrysler Pacifica production starts in Windsor

NM: Do you have any kind of a social relationship with your adversaries? You sit on the other side of the table from company men, but they’re doing what you’re doing. Do you guys ever go out and have a drink together?

JD: Sure, it’s easier to come to an agreement with someone you respect. It’s easier to problem-solve with people you respect. I deal with people who are at the top of their game, who work for the corporations that I deal with. I find if I have a working relationship with them, it sure helps to get things done.

For instance, in my dealings with General Motors, their chief negotiator I’ve known for the better part of 20 years. So, when I told him that there wasn’t going to be a settlement if we didn’t find a solution, he knew I wasn’t bluffing, because he knows me. Knowing each other helps, because there’s no question that behind closed doors, he would say to the people at the top at GM, “Listen, he’s not kidding.” That comes from him knowing me.

NM: Bob White took the CAW out of the UAW. Do you work closely today with the UAW?

JD: Absolutely. Dennis Williams (UAW president) is a great guy. We talk all the time. I will see him again in January, and we’ll spend some time together; we generally have a couple of days of meetings. Him and I will hook up periodically and have dinner and a few drinks and talk shop. We have a professional relationship based on our business, but we have a personal friendship.

As I was going through negotiations, when I picked GM to set the pattern, I went to Detroit, and I met with Dennis Williams, and it was very straight forward. If we had a strike with General Motors, there was no way they would undermine our dispute in any way, shape or form. He made sure that General Motors knew that.

NM: You have more than 300,000 members. That’s a lot of people to represent. That’s a big responsibility. Does it weigh on you at all that so many people are depending on you?

JD: It’s an incredible responsibility and one that I take terribly seriously. There are a lot of people who trust me to look out for their best interests. I would never betray it. I know every morning when I wake up that I’m lucky, that I have to perform, that people depend on us.

We’re the largest private-sector union in the country. With a large union comes a large responsibility, and that’s something you can’t take lightly and I don’t. It motivates me. I have an incredible team of assistants and great local union leadership. We really are a hands-on, grassroots organization. We’ve got a lot of things to do and we work hard doing it.

NM: For a few years in the recent past, there was a belief that the days of unions were over. Fewer people were belonging. Unifor is now a force in Canada. Will the future look kindly on unions, or are there rough waters ahead?

JD: I think there has been a change of perceptions. Our union really understands our role in the communities in which we live. The argument about these fat-cat union members and all they care about is themselves — I think all that perception, the mystique, is changing. We really are a community-based organization.

The union situation in Canada is stable. Unifor, for example, has organized over 15,000 new members in three years. So, the argument that somehow the labour movement is a dying breed just isn’t correct.

What’s really changed a lot of perceptions is the role our union plays in politics. Our union played a significant role in making sure (Conservative leader) Tim Hudak was defeated in the province of Ontario. Our union played a major role across the country in making sure (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper was defeated. I think our members see the power of the union, and I think communities understand the roles that unions are playing in standing up not only for unionized workers but non-unionized workers as well. As we raise the standard of living for our members, the standard for non-union members increases as well.

I think people are starting to see that things have gone too far the other way. I think Canadians in general have really gotten sick and tired of the establishment and trade deals that haven’t served us well. And I think people have sat back and said, “You know what? Everything’s supposed to be wonderful for us, and yet, it hasn’t worked out for us.” I think people are looking for alternatives, and you take a look at a nation where precarious jobs are becoming the standard, people are sitting back and saying, “Hey, hold on here. That’s not what I signed up for; there’s got to be a better way to do things.”

And I think people are looking at the labour movement today more than they have in decades to help them deal with the challenges in the workplace.

NM: Some think NAFTA has been great; some not so much. The new president-elect says he’s either going to rip it up or renegotiate. Are you apprehensive about Donald Trump and where he might go so far as NAFTA is concerned?

JD: I’m nervous when the president of the United States is a racist and sexist and that in itself raises red flags all over the place, because I can’t begin to think what he’s going to do to civil society in the United States and the impact that it’s going to have globally.

But when he says NAFTA has been a disaster for U.S. workers, he’s right. Because it hasn’t been kind to Canadian workers as well. The facts are we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs here in Canada. Just in the last 15 years, they’ve opened eight assembly plants in Mexico and closed two here in Canada. We’ve lost 50,000 direct auto jobs here in Canada with the majority of them going to Mexico. So, if you take a look at where we are today, and where we were pre-NAFTA, anybody that tries to argue that the manufacturing sector is better off today just isn’t being candid.

NAFTA has become cheap labour for international corporations; it’s a way of flooding the North American market with products made from slave labour. Period. Can you imagine that the people who work on the assembly lines to make the vehicles in the United States can’t afford to buy them? So, Trump’s right in that regard, and something needs to be done.

Also Read: How Mexico was able to become an automotive superpower

Jerry Dias union

The union representing 6,700 autoworkers at Ford in Canada said it has reached a tentative agreement and secured a $700-million product investment from the automaker after a tense round of talks that went past the midnight deadline. Unifor national president Jerry Dias, left, shakes hands with bargaining committee member Chris Taylor, right, of Ford Motor Company, as bargaining committee member Dino Chiodo, of Fiat Chrysler, sits between them, after the conclusion of a news conference regarding the ongoing Canadian Auto Workers union talks, in Toronto in an August 11, 2016, file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

NM: Do we have an auto strategy in Canada at the moment?

JD: Almost $1.6 billion dollars of investment was huge for stabilizing the industry (during the recession), but we’re at a point in our history where the federal and provincial governments have to make a statement. We haven’t had an auto strategy here in Canada since the demise of the auto pact, and with the investment we just negotiated, we could hit an economic home run and create tens of thousands of jobs with just a little bit of effort from the federal and provincial governments. Let me give you an example.

In four years, there has to be a major investment in Brampton with the next generation. The government should be speaking to Fiat Chrysler about that today. Those investments will stabilize the Brampton assembly plant for decades to come. We are going to need a major investment in Ford in Oakville within the next four years. If our governments participate, then we are going to be fine for decades to come.

Look at Oshawa. This assembly plant went from closing in 2018 to the only plant in North America that’s going to have the ability to build both cars and trucks. So, this is an incredible opportunity, a unique opportunity, that our government should be jumping on because this can create thousands and thousands of direct jobs and tens of thousands of spinoff jobs.

So, the opportunity is there. We just have to make sure we get beyond the stage of talking and get to the point where we put into place an action plan. To create the types of jobs governments always talk about. They talk grandiose, but then they throw nickels around like manhole covers.

At the end of the day, every nation in the world with a successful auto industry is successful because of the role of governments. Our governments understand that, but the question is, are they prepared to move to the next step? That’s going to be their challenge; my obligation is to make sure they get there.

NM: Are you talking to the governments about this.

JD: I talk to the government every week about this.

NM: You’re right in there?

JD: Am I ever.

This interview was edited for clarity and for length.

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