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

Unifor’s coming election will serve as a referendum on former president Jerry Dias’s governance style, labour-movement observers say, after an ethics controversy surrounding the founding leader hurt the reputation of Canada’s largest private-sector union.

“In a way, it will be a defining moment for Unifor and is almost as important as the union’s founding convention in 2013,” said Jim Stanford, a former policy director at the union who was instrumental in crafting aspects of its current constitution.

On Aug. 8, Unifor will hold its fourth convention in Toronto, which is expected to be attended by tens of thousands of former and current union members and observers. Elections to pick Mr. Dias’s successor as president, the secretary-treasurer and regional directors will be held over the course of the week. The positions will be filled at a time when the Canadian economy is faced with a tight labour market, surging inflation and the possibility of a recession.

Unifor has over 315,000 members, including some Globe and Mail employees. It was officially formed in August, 2013 when Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) joined forces.

Mr. Dias had been the union’s president since its inception and was once one of the most respected faces of Canada’s labour movement, with a reputation for being a tough negotiator. He successfully campaigned for billions of dollars in new automotive contracts for Ontario workers and was a pivotal figure in the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement in 2019.

But earlier this year, Mr. Dias was found by Unifor to have breached its constitution by receiving a $50,000 gift from a supplier of COVID-19 rapid test kits in exchange for promoting it to union members. He abruptly announced his retirement in March citing health issues, days before the union revealed that he was in fact under investigation. Mr. Dias is also being investigated by the Toronto police’s financial crimes unit for the allegation.

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Canadian labour-movement insiders and observers say that the controversy has undoubtedly taken a massive reputational hit on Unifor.

“There’s no question that the scandal has consumed the union, and overshadowed much of the bargaining that has taken place over the last one year. I think the union will want to use the convention to turn the page on Jerry Dias,” said Larry Savage, a professor of labour studies at Brock University whose research focuses on union culture in Canada.

Dr. Stanford told The Globe that Unifor’s credibility as an authentic, democratic force for workers’ rights had been “sullied.”

“On the one hand, I am tempted to say that a union is much bigger than one man’s lapse in judgment. On the other hand, you cannot underestimate how reading about a bag of money passing hands will raise questions in the minds of the average worker,” he said.

Prof. Savage believes it is imperative that the next Unifor leader attempts to repair the reputational damage caused by the Dias controversy, especially in a macroeconomic climate that is ripe for union activity.

“The unemployment rate is low, there’s a clear labour shortage, and inflation is high. This is an opportune moment for unions because workers have more leverage,” he explained.

Three candidates are in contention for the position of national president: current secretary-treasurer Lana Payne; Mr. Dias’ former assistant, Scott Doherty; and the Windsor-based president of local 444, Dave Cassidy.

Based on the number of public endorsements by local unions, it appears that Ms. Payne and Mr. Doherty are the two leading candidates. Both have been aggressively campaigning in person and on social media for months to win the support of local unions.

Ms. Payne shepherded the union through the Dias crisis and is running on a platform of integrity and accountability. She has promised to begin developing proposals for “enhanced accountability” on matters such as staff expenses within her first 100 days as president.

Mr. Doherty, who was a close confidante of Mr. Dias after serving as one of his five assistants for years, is focusing his campaign on his reputation as an effective negotiator, emphasizing how important it is for the union to bring in new members, and enhance their bargaining strategies in the wake of inflation.

But Mr. Doherty is seen by some as having been too close to Dias, and an obstacle to enacting real reform within a union that is in the midst of a credibility crisis.

“Mr. Doherty’s relationship with Mr. Dias was his greatest strength back in February, before the scandal. But it has become his kryptonite,” Prof. Savage said. “Of course, collective bargaining is the bread and butter of the union, so it makes sense that he is emphasizing his experience in this regard.”

Tony Leah, an ex-General Motors employee and chairperson of Unifor local 222′s political action committee in Oshawa, told The Globe that he would have preferred to see both the leading candidates be more forthright about problems with union leadership under Dias.

“It’s not just about this scandal. Of members I’ve spoken to there is still so much anger and frustration at what happened and a demand for more information about how Dias was running the union,” Mr. Leah said.

The outspoken union veteran believes that Unifor is in desperate need of brand new leadership that has no association with Mr. Dias. But the present voting system, where not all union members get to vote for a leader, is an impediment for real change to happen, he said.

Only delegates chosen by local union heads are allowed to vote for new leadership. The number of delegates chosen by locals, is proportional to the size of those locals. This is why public endorsements by locals are vitally important ahead of the election.

“It’s not one member one vote, but proportional voting by membership of your local. So to try and figure out the outcome at this stage, is complicated,” Prof. Savage explained.

But Unifor already does have a pretty effective governance structure that prioritizes accountability, according to Rafael Gomez, associate professor of employment relations at the University of Toronto.

“As a union, Unifor has many powerful locals, which sometimes shields members for disorganization at the very top,” he said.

While the union’s reputation has no doubt been damaged from the Dias controversy, Prof. Gomez believes that in a governance system that prioritizes accountability, things become exposed much more quickly.

“You could have presumably gotten away with this for longer in a private organization.”

Since its founding, Unifor has added more than 20,000 new members to its fold. One of Unifor’s more recent successes was last May unionizing more than 500 WestJet workers in Vancouver and Calgary, a development that many in the labour movement thought would be close to impossible, given the tight control the airline’s private equity owner Onex Corp. had over WestJet’s governance.

“It was a victory that we dreamed of back in 2013, and I really hope this convention will re-establish that kind of momentum,” said Dr. Stanford, who is now director of the Vancouver-based Centre for Future Work.

For him, the economic and political environment is as favourable to union organizing as it is ever going to be.

“We have got the recipe for an explosion of trade union activity, and if Unifor comes out of this convention with successful revitalization of its founding mission, it could make huge progress in the next few years.”