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Canadian Auto Workers union president Ken Lewenza at a news conference on Aug 14, 2012 in Toronto. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Canadian Auto Workers union president Ken Lewenza at a news conference on Aug 14, 2012 in Toronto. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

CAW’s Lewenza to step down as new union emerges Add to ...

The labour chiefs who put together a merger of two of Canada’s largest unions are retiring, opening one of the most powerful positions in the Canadian labour movement to new leadership.

Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, and Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, will step aside when the merger takes effect in September. The announcement is expected on Thursday in Toronto.

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They will nominate Jerry Dias, a 54-year-old veteran of the CAW, to be president of the new union, called Unifor. The merger will create a single 300,000-member union with employees across the country in manufacturing and autos, telecommunications, health care, cab drivers, pipelines, aerospace and newspapers.

Whoever gets the role will have one of the most high-profile – and difficult – jobs in organized labour.

The Unifor merger comes amid difficult times for unions in Canada. Overall union membership in Canada grew between 1981 and 2011, but the proportion of private sector workers belonging to unions fell to 15 per cent from about 30 per cent.

Some companies with unionized work forces are facing trouble from a high dollar and a sluggish economy, and many of those businesses are insisting on concessions from employees – a current example being the lockout of 900 employees at the Lake Erie operations of United States Steel Corp.

Political winds have also been unfavourable to unions: The federal government has intervened to end legal strikes, and the leading opposition party in Ontario is talking about implementing so-called “right-to-work” laws if elected, which would weaken union power, in a bid to revive the province’s battered manufacturing sector.

One purpose of the merger is to create a labour group strong enough to stand up to governments and corporations that began cutting workers’ pay, pensions and rights even before the recession, but picked up the pace of that activity during the 2008-2009 downturn, Mr. Dias said in an interview.

“It’s not a crime to expect to have a decent standard of living,” he said. “People have almost been conditioned that, as a result of globalization, we have to expect less.”

Workers are afraid to speak out because of the high unemployment rate and the loss of good-paying jobs, he said.

If Mr. Dias, 54, is elected at a Labour Day weekend convention that will ratify the merger and choose a new president, he will be the first leader of the union that represents auto workers in Canada to come from outside that industry.

He rose in the ranks of the CAW and its predecessor, the Canadian branch of the United Auto Workers, through the aerospace industry. He joined the union in 1978 at what was then de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd., where his first job was in the metal stamping shop.

His father was the president of the UAW local at the plant in the Downsview area of northwestern Toronto from 1967 to 1978.

“That was the focus of all the discussions around the breakfast table, the dinner table. My entire upbringing as a child was in a strong trade union family,” Mr. Dias said. “We were a working class family … so it’s absolutely in my blood.”

His wife, Leslie, is a national representative for CAW workers with Air Canada.

Mr. Dias followed in his father’s footsteps to become president of Local 112 and played a key role in persuading the Ontario government to purchase de Havilland and avert the closing of one of the largest industrial employers in Toronto.

In 1993, he joined the national staff of the CAW as aerospace industry co-ordinator and, in 2007, he became an assistant to then-CAW president Buzz Hargrove, a position he kept when Mr. Lewenza was elected president in 2008.

Mr. Dias is also a social activist. This year, for the fourth year in a row, he will participate in the “Hope in High Heels” walk, during which men walk in women’s high-heel shoes to raise money for Halton Women’s Place, which runs shelters for abused women in Burlington and Milton, Ont.

During his first walk in 2010, he set of goal of raising $30,000, said Carm Bozzo, the organization’s development manager. “I thought he was nuts, but he did it.”

Follow on Twitter: @gregkeenanglobe

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