Source: OFL Communications Department, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On March 23, the national heads of Unifor revealed in a press conference that former President Jerry Dias accepted a $50,000 bribe from a COVID test kit supplier company. These details were only brought forward after a leaked email revealed the existence of the investigation into Dias that was kept behind the backs of the Unifor membership. The press conference itself was only made after weeks of public pressure and outrage from members at the blatant lack of transparency. While executives continue to hide other important details of the investigation, a renewed fight for transparency and genuine democratic accountability must now begin by the rank and file.

Scandal kept hidden from the membership

Up until March 23, Unifor executives were actively keeping members in the dark about the details of the corruption allegations against Dias. On Feb. 6, Dias announced that he was going on medical leave. Shortly after this, Unifor’s national executive board endorsed Dias’s former executive assistant, Scott Doherty, for the presidential role. On March 11, Unifor announced Dias’s retirement due to the same health issues. Dias emailed a statement to the membership on his desire for immediate retirement:

“Though my term doesn’t expire until mid-August, it really makes little or no sense to have an active election campaign for the next five months. The National Executive Board has endorsed my Executive Assistant, Scott Doherty, for the position of National President and Dave Cassidy, President of Local 444, has announced his intention to run also. It makes no sense, given the uncertainty of my health, for me to stay and put the organization through an unnecessarily prolonged campaign. Today I am announcing my retirement, which under Unifor’s constitution, requires a special convention must be called where members will choose their next president and the organization can move on to the critical work of the union. Our members demand it and deserve it.” 

At that point, there was still no mention of the corruption allegations from the Unifor executives or Dias. However, the very next day, Unifor was forced to admit that Dias was currently under investigation for corruption. This admission only came to light after an internal email was leaked to the media. The email exposed that Dias and the entire executive were aware of the corruption allegations since at least January. 

The membership, meanwhile, were kept in the dark about the specifics of the allegations. Even after their public statement, the Unifor executive continued to insist they did nothing wrong. They stated: “In order to ensure the integrity of the ongoing investigation and to maintain confidentiality in accordance with the Unifor Constitution, specifics of the complaint will not be divulged at this time.” In other words, the constitution protects the privacy of corrupt executives over the rights of the membership. Just a few days ago, the leadership stated they were still considering ever making the investigation details publicly available to the membership. This is a complete violation of union democracy and the membership’s right to hold their leadership to account, especially during an election campaign mired in secrecy. 

The membership responded with outrage and demanded immediate release of the details. Hundreds have commented on the official Unifor Facebook pages condemning the executive for covering up the allegations. One worker commented: “Why was the membership not informed immediately that there was a complaint against Jerry that warranted an independent external investigation? What is the advantage of trying to keep it secret for weeks, when it had to be revealed eventually anyway?” Feeling this mounting pressure, the Unifor executives finally held the news conference and revealed the money that Dias had taken and refused to call it a kickback or bribe.

It was also revealed that Dias offered half of his bribe to another Unifor employee. The executive initially refused to name this individual, once again citing confidentiality. However, under the pressure of members, the name was finally exposed a day later: Dias offered $25,000 to his national assistant Chris MacDonald. The union leadership have stated that “Unifor is unable to speculate as to his motivations.” However, a psychiatric assessment reported that “Mr. Dias’s wrongful conduct may have arisen at least in part due to his feelings of loyalty to the individual who was not chosen to succeed him”. MacDonald was sidelined for the president role after Unifor’s national executive board officially endorsed another Dias executive assistant, Scott Doherty. Before McDonald was named, the executive emphasized that the bribe being reported showed how effective the internal democratic structures were. Now, it seems that MacDonald only came forward for revenge. Would he have reported this bribe if he had not been sidelined for the president role? Why did Dias even feel comfortable offering a kickback? This only further proves that Dias’s conduct is not an isolated incident, as the Unifor executive is attempting to portray. 

Shortly after the press conference, Dias published a letter and stated that “on my physician’s advice, I have not been able to participate in the investigation.” He references a “debilitating sciatic nerve issue” that led him to use “coping mechanisms (like) pain killers, sleeping pills and alcohol”.  While he has not addressed the allegations, he said these “coping mechanisms impaired my judgment in recent months”. Whatever real health issues Dias is dealing with, the triggering of a special convention does not provide adequate time for members to consider the candidates and make an informed decision. There are also many details still missing from this investigation that may not be discovered if Dias is left out of the investigation. For instance, did the COVID test kit supplier approach any other Unifor executives with a bribe? Also, why has the name of the test supplier been suppressed? Giving a bribe is just as illegal as taking one. The struggle for accountability has not ended now that the corruption allegations have been revealed. In fact, there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered leading into the August 2022 convention. 

Many members may be asking themselves how a corruption scandal could have happened in their union. To answer this question, we must take a look at the legacy of Jerry Dias. 

Who is Jerry Dias?

Jerry Dias became the first national president of Unifor after the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions in 2013. His leadership was put to the test in 2019 when General Motors announced a closure of their Oshawa Assembly Plant. At the time of the closure announcement, GM was making record profits. Unifor Local 222 workers put up a courageous fight to keep the plant open, organizing blockades, spontaneous walk-outs, and sit-ins. In fact, the majority of members voted in favour of a resolution for nationalization of the plant. This showed that rank-and-file members instinctively understood that they could not rely on GM to guarantee good jobs.  

Dias felt the pressure of this militant mood and initially stated, “They’re not closing down our plant without one hell of a fight”. At the same time, auto workers in Mexico were fighting for higher wages. There was a ripe opportunity to connect the struggle in Oshawa with the fight in Mexico. A united struggle of workers across borders for good union jobs could have put pressure on GM. Unfortunately, Dias led a campaign calling for boycotts of cars from Mexico. This effectively pitted workers in Mexico against workers in Canada. 

At the same time, Dias instructed Oshawa workers to stop their blockades and return to work. Ultimately, this took pressure off GM who proceeded to lay off thousands of workers. The GM plant was the economic heart of Oshawa and its closure also led to thousands of indirect job losses. The fighting spirit in Dias’s original statement was not matched by his actions. 

When GM workers were told to return to work, Dias stated that the union was appealing to the federal Liberal Party to save the plant. In the end, they did not save the plant. However, this was not the first time that Dias had expressed faith in the Liberals. He consistently advised members to vote Liberal during elections. Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was invited to the 2019 Unifor convention by Dias. Are the Liberals friends of the working class? When CUPW went on strike in 2019, Trudeau violated their bargaining rights and forced 50,000 workers back to work. The same anti-union legislation was used by the Wynne Ontario Liberals against OPSEU and striking college faculty. Throughout the pandemic, the Liberals have provided billions in bailouts to corporations while working class people have struggled to make ends meet. These examples are part of an endless series of attacks the Liberals have waged against the working class. The Liberals are the party of Bay Street; they are no friend to workers and Unifor members should have no faith in them.  

Ultimately, faith in the Liberals proved to be a slippery slope to faith in the Conservatives. In 2021, Dias stood on a podium and shook hands with the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, Doug Ford. Ford has the legacy of gutting social services, violating union bargaining rights with a one per cent public sector wage freeze, and fueling the pandemic. He also prevented a minimum wage increase in 2018. So when he promised a 65-cent increase to the minimum wage, most people clearly recognized this as a pre-election stunt. Apparently, it was not clear to Dias. After failing to understand the pro-capitalist, anti-union roots of the Liberals, Dias inevitably ended up supporting the other pro-capitalist, anti-union party of Canada, the Conservatives. 

This history reveals two serious mistakes by the Dias leadership. Dias failed to mobilize the membership at critical moments (such as the GM closure) and instead, has provided support for anti-worker parties. These mistakes have had far-reaching implications for Unifor. Unionization rates and dues-paying members have been decreasing for years. Dias turned towards raiding as a solution. Union raiding is an attempt to grow the dues-paying members for a union by effectively stealing members from other unions. Dias attempted to raid the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and Unite HERE but was blocked by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). For this, the Dias leadership disaffiliated Unifor from the CLC in 2018. This significant decision was made without consultation or discussion with the membership; it was a complete violation of union democracy. The result has been disunity between workers of different unions and activists working in common campaigns.

Dias leaves behind a legacy based on the strategies and tactics of business unionism. Business unionism is built on the assumption that workers and bosses have common interests. The pandemic exposed just how false this assumption is. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Canadian capitalists have made record profits. Meanwhile, average workers like Unifor members have lost incomes, jobs, and loved ones. In fact, the bosses made their profits by undermining the health and livelihoods of the working class. The pandemic and the corresponding economic insecurity provided a ripe opportunity for the capitalists to demand concessions from workers. Thousands of unionized workers were locked out by their employers in the last two years until terrible contracts were accepted. This is the logic of capitalism. The interests of workers and their bosses are completely opposed. 

Yet many trade union leaders like Dias still operate as if collaboration and compromise with the bosses is possible. Instead of compromising, the bosses have gone on the offensive in attacking workers. In this context, focusing on collaboration has benefited the bosses and led to defeats. 

The interests of workers to improve their working conditions is at odds with the outlook of business unionism to collaborate with the bosses. A union leadership focused on collaboration cannot fight for the interests of the membership. Instead, the strategy of compromising has created a gulf between rank-and-file union members and their leadership. This Dias scandal reveals how wide this gulf has become. It is not just some “isolated incident”, as the Unifor executive portrays it as. Corruption is a consequence of business unionism and class collaboration. 

How to fight for democracy and transparency 

The real source of power of a union comes from the workers. Workers have the ability to shut down production and undermine the profits of their bosses until their demands are met. It was the power and class instincts of rank-and-file Unifor members that initiated the blockades at GM. The only way to harness this power and fight back against the bosses is rank-and-file control over the union. 

Unifor must organize an emergency meeting to discuss the Dias scandal. Rank-and-file workers must have the space to review the investigation. This should be part of a larger discussion on the model of business unionism that has led to this corruption. We cannot leave everything to the Unifor executive that wanted to suppress the allegations and continue as if nothing had happened.

Rank-and-file workers have shown a willingness to fight against the bosses. What they need are leaders that are equally willing to use class struggle methods to fight back and win. To ensure leaders are only in their positions to defend the interests of the members, absolutely every union position must be regularly elected. To maintain the connection between the leadership and the membership, no union official should be paid higher than the average wage of the workers they represent. All positions should be subject to immediate recall whenever a leader refuses to struggle against the bosses or violates the democratic rights of the rank and file. 

These are the basic principles of union democracy that can challenge the current secretive culture at the top of Unifor.  Some may feel demoralized by the corruption scandal at the head of Unifor. Many still have questions as to the details of the investigation and may feel helpless. But now is a good time to begin a real fight for genuine democracy and transparency in the union. The real source of power of any union comes from the rank and file. Now is the time to fight for a leadership that can take this source of power and use it to the benefit of members. This can begin a real fight against the capitalist system that is hell-bent on making workers pay for the crisis.