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Canada Jerry Dias brings decades of front-line experience in bid to lead Canada's new superunion

‘Our combined efforts between the two unions are to make a bold statement that we’re going to fight to maintain the middle class,’ Jerry Dias says of the merged union he is likely to lead.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

When it comes to having enough experience to head a union of 300,000 people, there's one area where Jerry Dias wishes he had a lot less.

"I've probably – unfortunately – bargained more [plant] closing agreements than anybody else in the country," Mr. Dias said.

As an assistant to Canadian Auto Workers president Ken Lewenza since 2008, Mr. Dias was on the front lines of what was a miserable five years for the union amid the economic recession, incessant demands from companies for cuts in wages, pensions and benefits, and plant closings that eliminated thousands of jobs.

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But his pedigree for running the new Unifor union is strong.

He joined what was then the United Auto Workers at 19 when he went to work for de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd. in Toronto. Looking for inspiration to his father, who was president of the UAW local at the plant from 1967 to 1978, he became a union steward within a couple of weeks.

Among his accomplishments was helping to convince the Ontario government to take over de Havilland when it was scheduled to close. The plant still exists as a unit of Bombardier Inc., the Montreal-based transportation giant.

He joined the staff of the national union in 1993, became an assistant to Mr. Lewenza's predecessor Buzz Hargrove in 2007 and stayed on when Mr. Hargrove retired a year later.

So far, no one else has announced a plan to run for the leadership of the union at a convention to be held on Labour Day weekend. Mr. Dias holds the endorsements of Mr. Lewenza and Dave Coles, president of Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, both of whom will retire rather than run for the presidency of Unifor.

Asked why he wants the job, Mr. Dias said: "We have an opportunity to do something special at a time when working class people need a bigger say than they ever have."

But he also pointed to how the union will help improve the lot of women, which is one of his special concerns as the father of three daughters. He also has a son, who joins him an annual event called the Hope in High Heels walk for Halton Women's Place, which operates shelters for abused women in Burlington, Ont., and Milton, Ont., west of Toronto . In that fundraising event, men walk a couple of blocks in high heels.

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In 2010, during his first year, he set a goal of raising $30,000, which Women's Place development manager Carm Bozzo thought "was nuts." He raised that amount, however, and has set a goal of $100,000 for the 2013 walk next month.

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