Jerry Dias hopes to use his new position as president of Canada’s newest — and largest — private sector union to turn the tide for Canada’s labour movement.
The Canadian Auto Workers union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada have merged to form a new group called Unifor.
Dias was elected with about 87 per cent support at the new union’s founding convention in Toronto on Saturday.
“Unifor is here because it’s time to stop playing defence and it’s time we started to play offence,” said Dias in his fiery inaugural address. “It’s time to stop reacting and it’s time to start setting the agenda.”
Dias seemed to be especially focused on labour’s relations with the federal government.
”The Conservative government has decided to challenge our democratic right to organize and collect dues. They are singling out unions. They’re attacking our finances. They’re attacking our ability to represent our members,” said Dias.
“Today is about challenging the status quo and making sure the governments have a formidable foe if in fact they decide to take on the trade union movement.”
One early battle between the government and the new union could be brewing in the telecommunications industry. Dias said that he is strongly opposed to Verizon’s possible entry into the Canadian market, saying it would put many communication workers’ jobs at risk.
Dias, who is from Burlington, Ont., said he would uphold Unifor’s promise to dedicate 10 per cent of its revenues to organizing workplaces and adding new members.
He also said that Unifor would welcome workers traditionally excluded from collective bargaining and would seek other ambitious and creative ways to expand membership.
“It is about changing the discussion about workers and how they have to somehow accept less,” said Dias
A major part of this strategy, according to Dias, will have to do with harnessing discontent among unemployed youth.
“Young people today are crying for a union,” said Dias, who pointed to the Quebec student protests and the occupy movement as examples of frustrated youth. “Young people have had it, they see that society is leaving them behind and they are not going to take it.”
The union will initially represent more than 300,000 workers across roughly 20 sectors of the economy, primarily in manufacturing, communications and transportation.
It will also represent some public sector employees in the health, education and transit sectors.
Dias touched on many current topics in Canada including the Senate scandal, which he views as a serious mismanagement of taxpayers dollars in which senators found guilty should be kicked from office.
And he publicly supported New Democrat MP Olivia Chow to be the next mayor of Toronto. Chow, a former Toronto city councillor, has said she is considering a run for the job.
Internationally, Dias supported the movement to organize by fast food workers in the U.S. and condemned harsh new laws regarding gay rights demonstrations in Russia.
The CEP and CAW voted last year to join forces, a move they hope will boost the national labour movement.
Officials have said the switch to a non-traditional name — one that goes beyond simply listing occupations or industries — signals the union is looking to branch out.
CAW national president Ken Lewenza and CEP president Dave Coles did not run for the leadership of Unifor because they said the new union needed fresh leadership.