"This is the moment we are in," she told reporters and union members, just hours after shaking hands with representatives from each automaker to signal the start of negotiations.
"And no one — no one — should underestimate it."
The last few years have led to this critical moment. After the COVID-19 pandemic, breakneck inflation, rising corporate profits and a staggering succession of interest rate hikes, Unifor, like other unions, is under intense pressure to deliver more for workers: more pay, more benefits, more stability.
"When you're the biggest private-sector union in the country, there are big expectations for what you're able to accomplish at the bargaining table," said Larry Savage, a professor in the labour studies department at Brock University.
Since taking the helm last August, Payne has overseen a high-profile strike by Metro grocery store workers in the Greater Toronto Area, announced an organizing campaign for Amazon employees in Vancouver and launched bargaining for autoworkers, a key sector for Unifor as it looks to secure a place in the green transition.
Speaking from the union's head office in North York two days after the Metro strike began, Payne said it's an inspiring time to be part of the workers' movement.
PRESSURE FOR GAINS
"You fight for moments like this, where you can have an opening to create long-lasting change for workers," she said.
Amid the pressure to make real gains, Payne is also under another, unique pressure. She's the first woman to head Unifor and its second-ever president, replacing a larger-than-life leader whose legacy looms large despite his career ending in a swirl of scandal.
Jerry Dias was a familiar player in Canada's political scene, having come up in the Canadian Auto Workers before it merged with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union to become Unifor in 2013. Some of Dias' biggest victories included securing investments for the Canadian auto industry through Detroit Three bargaining and helping save a General Motors plant in Oshawa. He consulted during negotiations for the North American trade agreement that replaced NAFTA.
Payne, a former journalist, has been involved in the labour movement for several decades including as president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour and as Unifor's Atlantic Regional Director.
She succeeded Dias after he exited the role ahead of his planned retirement while under investigation for allegedly accepting a bribe. A police investigation resulted in no charges, and Dias denies the allegations. Observers have said the scandal laid bare issues with the union's culture that needed addressing by whomever took on the top job.
Payne defeated Dias' former assistant Scott Doherty and Dave Cassidy, president of Unifor Local 444, in what was the union's first true contested election.
Cassidy said he expects to see more of those in the union's future.
"Those days of giving the rubber stamp to somebody and somebody getting (elected) just automatically are done," he said.
He isn't alone in that thinking.
"I feel like the days of the good old boys' club ... it doesn't work anymore," said Shannon Sampson, president of Unifor MWF Local 1, who supported Payne in her campaign.
Dias was known for how he wielded the union's political capital to affect decision-makers and speak out on workers' issues. Payne, meanwhile, was front and centre last fall during rallies by Canadian Union of Public Employees workers against Ontario legislation making its strike action illegal, said Savage, helping push those more reluctant to jump on board. The provincial government repealed the bill in November after thousands of workers walked off the job, supported by other unions in the public and private sectors.
PAYNE CONTINUES TRADTION
"In some ways, Payne is continuing the tradition within that union of having a very public-facing president," said Savage. She has criticized the Bank of Canada for its rapid succession of interest rate hikes and supported the federal Online News Act, but, Savage noted, she has yet to be involved in a political campaign.
She also appears to be making a concerted effort to narrow the perceived gap between the interests of the national body and the priorities of locals, Savage said — a key campaign promise and a response to criticism that Unifor had become too centralized.
"Such centralized control is a double-edged sword for organizations that need to be effective, but also have a democratic mandate ... and different leaders will have navigated that tension in different ways," said Stephanie Ross, an associate professor at the school of labour studies at McMaster University.
The union has held dozens of sessions across the country with locals and their bargaining committees, Payne said, as part of its work to strengthen local power.
"The workers that you represent have to have confidence in what you're doing, and to feel part of it and feel inspired by it," she said. "You can't be the strongest union possible unless you make those connections with your members."
Reconnecting with locals also forms a key part of Payne's promised national bargaining strategy. The union is creating sector-wide strategies and held a national bargaining summit this past week after a year of regional sessions.
Those sector-wide approaches are intended to help the union with "pattern bargaining," a tactic that seeks to make strides across a sector by getting significant gains at one employer and then trying to replicate the agreement at other bargaining tables.
The strategy, long used in the auto sector, started off with a bang for grocery workers. The union held a strike vote before it began bargaining with Metro in what's expected to be the pattern-setting agreement ahead of a two-year stretch of bargaining with grocers. The move paid off: negotiators came to the table with 100 per cent support for the strike. Holding a strike vote before bargaining isn't common, said Payne, but it's a tactic the union has used recently to send strong signals to employers before negotiations.
But despite reaching a tentative agreement Payne called their best in decades, Metro workers rejected the deal recommended by their bargaining committee in a surprise move, deciding instead to strike in an action that's still ongoing.
Payne stands by the gains made in that first tentative agreement, but said after years of being unable to make ends meet, workers felt empowered to ask for more: "This is a strike that was three decades in the making," she said.
Autoworkers, too, have high expectations heading into negotiations, Cassidy said. They're not alone: the United Auto Workers in the U.S. will be bargaining with the automakers at the same time, a confluence Cassidy said hasn't happened in many years.
The UAW also has a new president. Shawn Fain took a combative stance against the automakers before bargaining began, breaking with tradition and refusing to participate in traditional handshakes. He was elected by a historic direct membership vote after a scandal involving bribery and embezzlement.
Payne says her union will put its members' interests first in auto bargaining.
"The EV transition has given us an opportunity to do something that we haven't seen in a couple of decades, which is to grow the sector, instead of diminishing the sector," said Payne.
Regardless of their different leadership styles, having the two unions bargaining with the automakers at the same time could be a boon for Canadian workers, said Ross.
"I think a different attitude on the part of the UAW leadership opens the door for the Canadian talks to produce some gains for Canadian autoworkers in a way that maybe has not been the case in the last 20 years," said Ross.
It's far too soon to tell what Payne's legacy will be, but Savage thinks that much like Dias' contributions to the auto sector, Unifor's ability to secure workers' places in the EV transition could be crucial to its new leader's eventual footprint.
As she turns her attention to winning strong contracts, Ross says Payne will have to make good on her pledge to support union members at the local level and take their priorities seriously.
"That is what Unifor needs to do. And it's what all unions need to do in this moment."
— With files from Ian Bickis and The Associated Press