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Former Unifor president Jerry Dias takes a question from a journalist after announcing a three-year labour agreement with the Ford Motor Company at a news conference in Toronto on Sept. 22, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Jerry Dias, the influential labour leader who abruptly announced his retirement as president of Unifor on Sunday, is being investigated by the union for an alleged breach of its constitution.

Unifor national secretary-treasurer Lana Payne received a written complaint about Mr. Dias on Jan. 26 and then started an independent external investigation, according to a statement the union issued on Monday. But the union declined to divulge specifics about the complaint and said it will not publicly comment on the matter until it receives the investigative report, which it said is expected in the near future.

Unifor leader Jerry Dias retires early after going on medical leave

Unifor president Jerry Dias takes medical leave

Mr. Dias, now 64 years old, was elected to his first of three successive terms as national president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, in 2013. The union represents 315,000 workers across multiple sectors, including many employees at The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.

A long-time advocate for auto workers, Mr. Dias played a critical role in getting General Motors to reverse its decision on shuttering a production plant in Oshawa, Ont. He has frequently been in the media spotlight, and was a constant presence in NAFTA trade talks. Last December, Ontario Premier Doug Ford tapped him to head the province’s Council on U.S. Trade and Industry Competitiveness, a task force set up to navigate American protectionist measures related to the auto industry.

Mr. Dias went on medical leave on Feb. 6, and on March 11 he informed the union’s national executive board that he would retire, effective immediately. On Sunday, the union made public that Mr. Dias was leaving. But Sunday’s statement did not mention the investigation.

Unifor Local 444 president Dave Cassidy referenced the investigation in a Feb. 27 e-mail to Ms. Payne and other members of the national executive team, later obtained by the Globe. In the message, Mr. Cassidy called for the union’s leadership to be “transparent and truthful” about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Dias’s medical leave.

“Different versions of Brother Dias’s leave have been circulated and I believe this cloud of secrecy must be clarified by the officers,” Mr. Cassidy wrote. “If in fact his absence is medical, then why has an active investigation been initiated by the officers and why has an outside legal firm been retained?”

Mr. Cassidy, who announced his intention last month to run for the union’s top job, demanded in the e-mail that the union’s leadership disclose the nature of the investigation into Mr. Dias and whether there was any “criminal or legal liability to the national union” associated with it.

In an e-mail Mr. Dias sent to Unifor staff March 11 – also obtained by The Globe – he said he had decided to end his term as national president because of a “debilitating sciatic nerve issue” that was making it difficult for him to focus on daily tasks. Mr. Dias wrote that he had been suffering from the condition since December, and was awaiting direction from a neurosurgeon.

He added in the e-mail that he was also dealing with heart issues and was evaluating next steps with his cardiologist. He thanked union members and staff for an “incredible journey” building an “incredible organization,” but did not mention the internal investigation.

Mr. Dias did not respond to multiple requests from The Globe for comment.

He had previously said he would retire in August, after Unifor’s constitutional convention in Toronto, where the union planned to elect a new president.

Because Mr. Dias’s retirement came more than 120 days before the convention, the union will not be able to wait until August to vote on a new leader. Instead, its constitution dictates that it call a special convention to elect a new president within 30 days of his departure.

In his e-mail to staff, Mr. Dias said it made “no sense” to have an active election campaign for the next five months, given his health situation.

Sid Ryan, the former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour and a prominent labour leader in Canada, said in a Facebook post that the cost of holding a special convention would be significant, especially considering the fact that the union would still hold its August convention.

“If Dias had delayed his retirement by 3 weeks there would be no need to hold an emergency convention … it begs the question why would Dias trigger this clause and the huge expense involved when he is already on sick leave and receiving his salary?” Mr. Ryan wrote.

In addition to Mr. Cassidy, Mr. Dias’s executive assistant Scott Doherty is contending for the union presidency. He has already been endorsed by much of the union’s national leadership team.

“I’m proud of the re-opening of the GM plant in Oshawa and the opportunity it creates for young people,” Mr. Dias wrote in his retirement e-mail to staff. “I’m proud that 50% of all new hires are women. I’m proud of the incredible work we did with the renegotiation of the new NAFTA.

“The union has been my whole life, born and bred. That’s why this is so difficult.”

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today. Vanmala Subramaniam is The Globe’s Future of Work reporter, email her at VSubramaniam@globeandmail.com.