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Bob Kinnear was removed from his long-time post as president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, the biggest union at the TTC, after allegations of a ‘coup.’Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Canada's largest private-sector union, Unifor, has publicly thrown its weight behind deposed union leader Bob Kinnear as an increasingly nasty battle over who should represent 10,000 of Toronto's transit workers heated up with allegations of "spies" and a "coup."

Mr. Kinnear was stripped last week of his long-time post as president of the always fractious Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, the biggest union at the Toronto Transit Commission. He is now waging a civil war to convince members to ditch their affiliation with the U.S.-based ATU and join Unifor instead.

Rumours that Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union, was circling were confirmed on Tuesday, when Unifor's national president, Jerry Dias, held a press conference with Mr. Kinnear at his side at a downtown Toronto hotel, demanding that Local 113 members be allowed to vote on their union's future.

"I am completely disgusted by the heavy-handed actions by the international union on Local 113 members," said Mr. Dias, a veteran of the battle that saw the Canadian Auto Workers split from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers in 1985. "It's about democracy. ... The only group of people that can remove Bob Kinnear and the executive board from their positions in Local 113 is the members that elected them in the first place."

The fight is already before the courts, where lawyers for Mr. Kinnear are trying to strike down ATU rules that make it almost impossible for a local to separate. Mr. Kinnear claims the ATU has done little to help TTC workers battle recent moves to strip them of their right to strike, or impose drug and alcohol testing, charges that ATU officials reject.

Last week, after Mr. Kinnear had asked the Canadian Labour Congress to intervene in the dispute, the U.S.-based ATU put Local 113's union office under a trusteeship and threw Mr. Kinnear and his supporters off the union's executive board. Six of his allies remain on the outside, but 10 members of the 17-member board have since been reinstated, amid allegations of threats and "loyalty oaths." The CLC has since suspended its normal rules against "raiding" Local 113, opening up the possibility of a switch to Unifor.

At his own press conference earlier Tuesday, Manny Sforza, an ATU vice-president and a former Local 113 officer now running the local, said the ATU was intent on "restoring union democracy," but that there would be no vote on whether to join Unifor.

He alleged that Mr. Kinnear had "plotted in secret" with Unifor. He produced an e-mail, which he described as "damning evidence," that appears to show that Mr. Kinnear and his supporters were communicating not only with lawyers but with senior Unifor officials on Thursday, the day before the ATU imposed its trusteeship and kicked him out.

One Local 113 official, John Di Nino, said he had been offered a "patronage" job by a Kinnear supporter, and called the campaign a "coup." Others warned that the fate of the TTC workers pension fund, jointly administered by the transit agency and Local 113, could be in doubt – a charge Mr. Kinnear later dismissed as an "outrageous lie."

Flanked by dozens of union stewards and officials, Mr. Sforza shouted from a podium emblazoned with the ATU emblem of a raised fist: "To Mr. Kinnear, the members and leaders of Local 113 have this message: You've been exposed! Your game is over! Local 113 is not for sale!"

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Kinnear says the feud has actually been simmering for about three years. In the fall, he and Mr. Dias said, the ATU's U.S. brass overruled a "unanimous" call by Canadian delegates to elect Mr. Kinnear to the post of ATU vice-president for Canada, installing Mr. Sforza instead.

The ATU has installed "spies" to report on any dissension in the ranks, Mr. Kinnear alleged, and has threatened to rip up the union cards of Kinnear supporters and throw them out of their jobs.

Asked about the allegations that he was plotting against his own union, Mr. Kinnear acknowledged he could not have openly advocated a split from the ATU: "If I had brought this to a full board meeting, and not talked to people individually, I would have been ousted five minutes after that board meeting was over. ... Union politics is the most challenging set of politics. It's nasty."