Three longtime labor leaders have declared their candidacy to become the next president of Unifor as the union navigates its first leadership transition.
Formed from the 2013 merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Unifor represents 315,000 workers in Canada. That includes about 40,000 at auto parts suppliers and vehicle assembly plants.
Until his abrupt March 11 retirement, former President Jerry Dias had helmed the union through its entire history.
While Dias had been scheduled to retire from the top post in August, allegations about his conduct have wracked the union and complicated the timeline.
In March, Unifor’s 25-member National Executive Board alleged Dias accepted $50,000 from a supplier of COVID-19 test kits he had helped promote to union employers.
A hearing that could see the former leader stripped of his union membership is to be held at a later date.
Unifor planned to hold a special convention to replace Dias this spring. Citing the added expenses of an early election, however, the National Executive Board voted May 6 to leave the leadership position vacant until the union’s constitutional convention, which was already set for August.
Given the unusual circumstances surrounding Dias’ departure, the board will abstain from endorsing a candidate for the first time in its history, leaving the three candidates free to campaign and face off on the convention floor this summer.
Automotive News Canada spoke with them about their experience, motivations for running and plans for the union.
As president of Unifor Local 444, Dave Cassidy said his focus is on engaging, empowering and supporting individual members. If elected to head the union nationally, he plans to carry forward this same open-door policy.
“I’m a grassroots-type guy. … I’m going to bring that to Toronto (union headquarters) as well,” he said. “We have to engage with our rank-and-file members, and we’ve lost that.”
The 54-year-old Windsor, Ontario, native began his career as an apprentice electrician and in 1993 was hired by Chrysler Canada. Cassidy was elected to various positions within the skilled-trades ranks at the Windsor Assembly Plant before being appointed financial secretary of Local 444 in 2009.
In 2018, he took over as president of the local, which represents workers at the plant, now part of Stellantis, and a range of other auto and nonauto employers in the area.
Since Unifor’s formation, Cassidy has also served on the National Executive Board as a representative for the skilled trades.
Cassidy said he has contemplated a run for the national presidency for some time and received encouragement from supporters across the country late last year as Dias’ retirement neared. While Cassidy sought the former president’s endorsement, Dias gave the nod to Scott Doherty, his executive assistant.
Given the allegations against Dias, Cassidy said, it’s important to reengage with members and restore trust in the national organization.
“That’s how we move forward past this: Put checks and balances in place … look at best practices and just be transparent with our membership,” he said.
Longer term, Cassidy said he would concentrate on improving union organizing to keep Unifor growing, as well as collective bargaining to ensure existing members maintain job security.
Having spent the past eight years working alongside Dias and other union leaders on a range of significant contracts, Scott Doherty, executive assistant to the national president, said he brings the leadership, administrative and team-building skills required to head Unifor.
The union’s leadership team, made up of its elected officers and five assistants, unanimously backed Doherty for the presidency Jan. 19, and the National Executive Board seconded the endorsement Feb. 1. But with the allegations about Dias, followed by Secretary-Treasurer Lana Payne publicly entering the race April 12, Doherty asked for the nomination to be withdrawn to avoid dividing the board.
Doherty expects a “vigorous” campaign but said he is focused on tackling issues that Unifor and its members face, such as record inflation, lingering COVID-19 problems and broken trust with union members tied to the Dias allegations.
“We just need to buckle down and get back to doing the work of our organization and build back the trust,” he said.
Doherty, 52, has led recent rounds of bargaining in the forestry, telecom and energy sectors and taken on a series of roles in the past two rounds of auto talks with the Detroit 3 in Canada.
Having gotten an early start in labor with both the Canadian Auto Workers and Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada in positions on Canada’s West Coast, the Campbell River, British Columbia, native became president of CEP Local 1123, a member of the national executive board and eventually a national representative in 2008.
When Unifor was formed in 2013, Doherty was elected western regional director. In 2014, he was appointed assistant to the national president and a year later promoted to executive assistant.
Referencing Dias, Doherty said Unifor must install safeguards to protect against ethical breaches, while also looking at ways to generate growth for the union through organization.
The past three months “changed everything” for Unifor Secretary-Treasurer Lana Payne.
Elected to the post in 2019 after two terms as Atlantic director, Payne, 56, said she has had a hand in a broad range of union activities. They include watching over Unifor’s finances, steering its pandemic response and participating in certain bargaining rounds, such as the 2020 auto talks with the Detroit 3. She also oversaw the sensitive, monthslong external investigation into Dias.
In January, Payne had endorsed Doherty to be Unifor’s next president. After taking time to “pause and reflect” on the Dias allegations, however, she entered the race in April.
“I believe that at this point in time, our union needs the kind of leadership that I can offer, the kind of experience that I’ve had dealing with crisis,” she said.
Payne, who grew up in Deer Lake, Newfoundland, said the union’s immediate focus needs to be on transparency, rebuilding trust and enacting new processes to handle misconduct.
“I can lead the union in the direction where we’re not in a place where we just carry on as business as usual, because I think that would be a mistake,” she said. “There’s redress and address that needs to happen here.”
Having started her career in labor with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, then affiliated with the CAW, Payne progressed through a long list of positions within her local before being elected president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labor in 2008. She was elected Atlantic director when Unifor was formed in 2013.
With an emphasis on accountability and open dialogue with locals, Payne said she would bring a new approach to the office of president.
“I think it’s OK in moments like these to have a different kind of leadership and to be offering something different to the members.”