Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, says its former president Jerry Dias accepted $50,000 from a third party supplier of COVID-19 rapid tests, in violation of the union’s code of ethics.
The update from high-ranking union officials follows revelations of an external investigation into Unifor’s long-time leader due to an internal complaint.
That investigation has now concluded on a balance of probabilities that Dias promoted a supplier of rapid tests to “various” Unifor employers who subsequently purchased the kits, said the union’s secretary-treasurer Lana Payne in a Wednesday press conference.
At some point prior to Jan. 20, 2022, Dias accepted $50,000 from the supplier, Payne said. Dias then gave a Unifor employee half of those funds, stating that the money came from the rapid test supplier, according to Payne.
The employee subsequently filed a complaint under Unifor’s code of ethics and delivered the funds to the union’s secretary-treasurer.
“We know that Unifor members will be upset by what you’re learning today,” said Payne. “Our union’s Constitution has a very strong code of ethics, which is in place to ensure that no elected union leader is acting for personal gain.”
Payne said Unifor funds were not involved in the interaction and that the issue is being treated as an “isolated incident.”
The allegations first surfaced publicly on March 14, following a complaint about Dias in late January, said Payne. On Jan. 29, Dias was informed of the investigation, and on Feb. 6 he went on leave, citing health issues.
A month later, he informed the Unifor executive board he was retiring effective immediately, just days before news of the investigation became public.
In a statement sent to the Star, Dias said he was “always guided by the principles set out in our constitution.” He said he was unable to participate in the investigation into the complaint against him on his “physician’s advice.”
“My physician has told me, straight up, that I need help. That’s why I am entering a residential rehabilitation facility. I will also be stepping away temporarily from all of my advisory positions.”
Dias said his medical leave was approved by the union and that his doctor provided a detailed health report to the investigator engaged by Unifor. He said his life took a “remarkable turn for the worse” due to a “debilitating” sciatic nerve issue.
“It’s hard for me to say this, but my coping mechanism has been pain killers, sleeping pills and alcohol. These factors have impaired my judgment in recent months, and I owe it to our members to seek the treatment I need,” Dias’s statement said.
“Anyone who knows me, knows that my work with Unifor has been my reason for getting out of bed for nearly a decade. The union has been my whole life, born and bred. But now it’s time for me to listen to my doctor and put my health first.”
The next step is a hearing before the union’s National Executive board, where Dias will “have an opportunity to fully present information and arguments concerning the charge” against him, said Payne.
The union is also “seeking legal advice” on any other “obligations we may have to follow through with,” she added.
Dias’s retirement triggered plans for an emergency convention to elect his replacement, which is currently scheduled to happen in August. But at the Wednesday press conference, Payne said the executive board has moved to pause election campaigning to deal with the fallout of the investigation.
Unifor Local 444 president Dave Cassidy and Dias’s former executive assistant, Scott Doherty, are both in the running to replace Dias; Doherty has been endorsed by the national executive board.
In response to questions from the Star, Payne said the board has not re-considered that endorsement.
In late February, Cassidy emailed the executive team asking for transparency about Dias’s leave and about the outside legal firm tasked with investigating the longtime union leader. Cassidy’s email questioned whether Dias’s leave was medical in nature.
In an email informing Unifor staff of his retirement March 11, Dias said he had been dealing with heart issues on top of the sciatic nerve issue.
Unifor’s executive board met on March 21 to discuss the matter.
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The union is not naming the rapid test supplier, because the company was not involved in the investigation, said Payne. The organization is also not naming employers who purchased screening kits because they were unaware of any wrong doing.
“Our trust in one individual has been broken, but our confidence in the integrity of our union remains strong,” said Payne. “Our union has stood this serious test and the integrity of our process has proven that accountability and transparency to our members is and will always remain our first priority.”
Although Dias has retired, he could still be sanctioned by suspending or removing his Unifor membership, said Payne.
“That’s all we can do under our Constitution,” she told reporters.
If the charges against Dias are confirmed, it will represent a massive breach of trust for Unifor’s members and employees, said Brock University labour studies professor Larry Savage — opponents of the labour movement will use this to paint a dark picture of unions as a whole, despite the fact that this is a rare occurrence in the Canadian labour movement.
“It’s a dark day for Unifor,” said Savage.
Members of the union will want to know who else was involved, said Savage, and they will likely question whether the union’s internal mechanisms to prevent such breaches are strong enough.
Unifor has a big job ahead of it: to rebuild the trust of its membership and of the public, said Stephanie Ross, associate professor and director of the school of labour studies at McMaster University.
While constitutional checks and balances within unions are crucial, their effectiveness also depends on maintaining an engaged membership, said former Canadian Auto Workers research director and labour movement expert Sam Gindin.
“A constitution is great, but you need people who are actively participating and paying attention.”
This investigation will be a top line of questioning in the upcoming election to replace Dias, said Savage, and could impact the results — Cassidy is running on a campaign of transparency, and of shifting power to the membership and away from the executive level.
The results of the election are more uncertain than they were just a few weeks ago, said Ross. “The special convention will be a raucous one,” she said.
Savage and Ross both said the Unifor executive board deserves credit for its transparency thus far, however.
Members will expect the same level of transparency throughout this process, said Ross.
If Dias is sanctioned after the forthcoming hearing and loses his Unifor membership, his pension may be impacted, said Ross
However, the revelation that Dias is entering rehab for substance use may complicate the hearing and the way Dias chooses to present himself, said Ross.
Dias was elected Unifor national president in 2013 when the union was formed as a merger between the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). Unifor represents around 315,000 workers in almost 30 sectors, including at the Toronto Star.
During his time as Unifor national president, Dias maintained a high public profile, taking part in international trade discussions and waging a campaign to keep General Motors’ Oshawa plant open. He also joined with other unions to advocate for stronger safety precautions for workers during the pandemic.
But he drew fire over pay concessions at GM’s iconic Oshawa plant, as well as for bigger-picture decisions at Unifor — including breaking away from the Canadian Labour Congress.
Dias was recently tapped to lead the Premier’s Council on U.S. Trade and Industry Competitiveness, established to fight “buy American” policies that favour American-built electric vehicles and other U.S. products over Ontario products. He has stepped back from that role citing health concerns, but had not resigned as of March 15.
Business Council of Canada president Goldy Hyder is acting as chair on an “interim basis,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade said.
With files from Rob Ferguson and The Canadian Press
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