Unifor has reversed course on its plan to hold a special convention to replace former President Jerry Dias, a decision that will leave the union’s top post vacant until a successor is chosen at its regularly scheduled convention this August.
The union’s National Executive Board (NEB) voted May 6 to put off replacing Dias for three further months, pointing to the “extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances” of the former president’s retirement and “the dictates of common sense” for the move.
Unifor, which represents 315,000 workers in Canada, including approximately 40,000 at auto parts suppliers and vehicle assembly plants, has been without a president since March 11, when Dias abruptly retired after 8 ½ years on the job. He had originally been expected to retire this August.
On March 14, it was revealed Dias had been under investigation by the union prior to his retirement. The NEB then alleged on March 23 he had received $50,000 from a supplier of COVID-19 test kits he had helped promote to union employers. A union hearing that could see Dias stripped of his union membership is expected to be held at a later date.
The timing of Dias’ retirement greatly complicated the race to replace him.
The union’s constitution stipulates the office of president cannot remain vacant for more than 120 days, and requires the 25-member NEB to call a special convention within 30 days to fill the role. Dias’ departure occurred more than 120 days before Unifor’s planned convention, and the union confirmed as early as March 23 it would be forced to hold a special election to pick a new president. The NEB also passed a motion April 4 approving a special election call.
The 30-day window to organize a vote passed in mid-April, however, with no date being declared.
Internal debate over whether to hold a special convention or accept the 154-day presidential vacancy has been ongoing for more than a month, according to the NEB motion voted on May 6. Those against the special election have pointed to the added expense and complications for union locals selecting delegates. Proponents of the early race said the union must abide by its constitution.
In opting to skip the special convention, the NEB cited recent instances, most of them pandemic-related, that prompted the board to “deviate from the strict requirements” of its constitution.
Unifor Local 444 President Dave Cassidy, one of three candidates running to become Unifor’s next president, as well as an early proponent of maintaining the August election date, praised the decision, and credited members for speaking up against the special convention.
“This needless special convention was never the fault of the rank-and-file members, and now because of our voice, they won’t have to bear the unfounded extra expense,” Cassidy said in a Facebook post May 6.
The move will eliminate the first of what would have been two presidential contests in the span of several months: one at the special convention, and another at Unifor’s triennial constitutional convention in August, when all six of the union’s top leadership positions, including president, will be put to votes.
Others, however, have questioned the NEB’s authority to act against the union’s constitution despite the unusual circumstances.
Scott Doherty, executive assistant to Unifor’s national president and another candidate for the top job, said a plan was developed for a late April special convention, but never acted upon.
“I know many of you are concerned about a slippery slope of cherry picking when we follow our constitution and when we don’t,” he said in a May 8 Facebook post, adding members will have the ability to amend the constitution at the convention this August.
The election to determine Unifor’s next president will be held at the union’s constitutional convention in Toronto Aug. 8-12.