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UNIFOR president Jerry Dias in Toronto on May 8, 2019.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

As Unifor seeks to replace its beleaguered former president, Jerry Dias, a raging debate has cropped up among current and former members over the expense accounts of some of the top leadership at the organization, which is Canada’s largest private-sector union.

Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail – which have also been circulating among union members and staff, and on social media – show that a number of key figures in the union, including Mr. Dias, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of Unifor’s money annually on travel, hotels and other union-related expenses.

The contents of the documents have elicited a mix of outrage and skepticism from former and current union members, with some saying the information was leaked for political purposes in the lead up to a pivotal election that will determine Mr. Dias’s successor as national president. Others in Unifor’s ranks are calling for greater accountability when it comes to the expense accounts of senior union executives.

Financial integrity is a key issue in the union’s election, because of the circumstances that surrounded Mr. Dias’s departure: an ethics scandal over an improper payment he had allegedly received from a vendor. The race’s outcome will be determined at the union’s convention, which begins on Aug. 8.

The documents show a breakdown of expenses incurred by the union’s top leadership between 2018 and 2021, including line items like air and rail travel, hotel stays and amounts spent on meetings outside the office.

They detail expenses incurred by Mr. Dias and 16 other people, including his long-time assistant Scott Doherty and the union’s secretary-treasurer, Lana Payne. Both Mr. Doherty and Ms. Payne are in the running to replace Mr. Dias.

Collectively, these 17 union leaders, regional directors and their assistants spent $1.79-million in 2018 and $1.84-million in 2019 on work-related expenses including travel, the documents show. In 2020, that number dropped to $710,000, and in 2021 it fell to $388,000.

Mr. Dias appears to have been one of the union’s biggest spenders. The documents show that he incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel, hotel and other expenses on an annual basis.

According to the documents, in 2018 Mr. Dias claimed close to $317,000 in expenses, which consisted of travel and accommodation fees incurred during work trips, parking costs, car insurance and maintenance fees, taxi fares, meeting-related expenses and cellphone expenses.

In 2019, Mr. Dias claimed roughly $280,000 in expenses. During the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, which necessitated a sharp reduction in travel, his expenses dropped to $143,000 and $109,000 respectively.

In an e-mailed statement, Mr. Dias’ lawyer, Tom Curry, a managing partner at the Bay Street law firm Lenczner Slaght LLP, said all his client’s expenses were “appropriately approved” by Unifor’s secretary-treasurer, in compliance with the union’s policies.

“Concerns about these expenses were never raised by any member of the National Executive Board,” Mr. Curry wrote. “The fact that they have been leaked and editorialized weeks before the election to replace Mr. Dias suggests this is not an exercise in accountability but a desperate bid to benefit politically from the disparagement of Mr. Dias.”

Mr. Dias was once a respected face of Canada’s labour movement, with a reputation for being a tough negotiator. The ethics scandal involving him became public after an internal investigation found he had breached Unifor’s constitution by receiving a $50,000 gift from a supplier of COVID-19 rapid tests, allegedly in exchange for promoting the company’s tests to union members.

In March, days before the union announced Mr. Dias was under investigation, he abruptly announced his retirement, citing health issues. He is also being investigated by the Toronto Police Service’s financial crimes unit for allegedly receiving the $50,000.

A union hearing into Mr. Dias’s conduct was scheduled for April, but was postponed because of his health condition. Earlier this year, he told union members and the public that he had enrolled in a rehab facility after months of uncontrolled use of pain killers, sleeping pills and alcohol to treat a sciatic nerve issue.

One of the other top spenders, according to the documents, is Mr. Doherty, who is broadly responsible for Unifor members in the energy, forestry, rail and manufacturing sectors.

In 2018, Mr. Doherty claimed roughly $282,000 in expenses. Among them were $97,000 for air and rail travel, $73,000 for hotel stays and $70,000 for “meeting expenses.”

A year later, in 2019, Mr. Doherty’s annual expenses climbed to $315,000. About $114,000 was allocated to air and rail travel, while close to $67,000 was for hotel stays. Mr. Doherty’s expenses dropped to $150,000 and $72,000 for 2020 and 2021, respectively, owing largely to a decline in travel costs and hotel stays, according to the documents.

According to two sources with knowledge of the union’s operations, union leaders and their assistants would frequently travel business class if they were flying abroad, and their hotel stays would often be at five-star Sheraton or Fairmont hotels.

The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal union affairs.

Mr Dias’ lawyer, Mr. Curry, said decisions on hotels were made according to Unifor’s travel policy, which prioritized those that were staffed by Unifor members, such as the Fairmont chain. He added that Mr. Dias “periodically received upgrades,” but that those were provided at no expense to Unifor members.

Mr. Doherty did not respond specifically to questions about whether he travelled business class or stayed in luxury hotels using union funds. But, as part of a lengthy e-mailed response to The Globe, he expressed outrage at the leak, saying that the documents were made public for “political reasons.”

“Not once in the past three years were my expenses cited or returned by Unifor’s finance department which is overseen by the National Secretary-Treasurer,” Mr. Doherty wrote. He added that over the past three years he has taken nearly 300 flights to bargaining sessions, meetings, solidarity actions and conferences across the country, and spent 275 nights in hotels.

“I expensed 430 breakfast, lunch or dinner meetings with members, employers, committees, staff and leadership advocating for better working conditions, better collective agreements, and better lives for our members,” his statement said.

Ms. Payne responded on Unifor’s behalf to questions about the union’s travel and accommodation policies. In an e-mail, she said the union’s practice is to fly economy class domestically, but that bookings on international flights can range from economy to business class “depending on length of the flight and seat availability.”

Ms. Payne also said that Unifor leadership and staff often stay at hotels that employ Unifor members, but that this is not always possible owing to a hotel’s location or lack of access to a required meeting space. “If a Unifor represented hotel is not available then priority is given to other unionized hotels,” she added.

The race to pick Unifor’s next leader has morphed into a contentious one, with the two leading candidates – Mr. Doherty and Ms. Payne – aggressively campaigning to win the support of various union locals ahead of the August election in Toronto.

The expenses leak prompted Ms. Payne, the union’s secretary-treasurer and current de facto president, to issue an internal e-mail addressing the issue on July 6. The e-mail, which Ms. Payne provided to The Globe, said most of the expenses were “well within the limits and justified by the union duties required of senior officers and staff,” but that some of them “raise questions and concerns.”

She added that there must be “stronger approval processes to oversee expenses.”

Ms. Payne is campaigning on a platform of accountability. She told The Globe there is an urgent need to adopt new oversight mechanisms when it comes to expense accounts belonging to members of the union’s National Executive Board.

She also said that, as secretary-treasurer, she is in charge of approving staff expenses, except for those of assistants to the president. Those approvals, she said, come directly from the president.

Ms. Payne’s own annual expenses averaged $100,000 in 2018 and 2019. That figure dropped to roughly $40,000 in both 2020 and 2021. She said she flies economy class domestically, but did not specifically say whether she also does so on international flights.

Brock University professor and labour relations expert Larry Savage said it is no surprise that the largest private-sector union in the country spends large amounts of money on things like travel, because unions require substantial resources to operate effectively.

What’s more interesting, he said, is the disparity between officials in the same union and the reasons for those disparities.

“There may be a perfectly sound explanation, but members will no doubt want to know why particular people spend more than others,” he said.

The union’s internal tensions continued this week. Mr. Doherty posted a message on his Facebook page on Wednesday in which he condemned the expenses leak and noted that other leaked confidential documents involving his role in the investigation into Mr. Dias were in the “sole possession of the National Secretary-Treasurer’s office.”

Unifor has roughly 315,000 members across the country, including some Globe and Mail employees. The bulk of the union’s revenue is derived from union dues paid by members. In 2020, according to publicly available financial statements, the union collected approximately $104-million in union dues, which made up 86 per cent of its overall revenue. In 2019, the union collected $113-million in dues from members.

The financial statements say the total amount of expenses claimed by all Unifor employees, including senior leadership, dropped significantly, from $9.5-million in 2019 to about $4-million in 2020.

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