Jerry on the job

How the president of Canada’s largest union, Jerry Dias, is driving the country’s electric vehicle push

Jerry Dias-GM Oshawa plant
Photo credit: Kathleen O’Keefe/Unifor

“Jerry, I would never accuse you of owning a Tesla,” I say with a wink.

“That’s a fact,” barks Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, which represents workers in Canada’s automotive assembly sector.

Dias doesn’t drive an electric vehicle but is quick to add, “I will get one when my members build one.”

That day is approaching.

This past fall, Dias and his team finalized agreements to bring EV production to Oakville and Windsor, Ontario. In a wide-ranging interview, the head of the country’s largest private-sector union tells me how he lobbied key players to secure deals worth $1.95 billion at Ford and up to $1.58 billion at Fiat Chrysler.

Dias relishes telling the story. He stresses that the investments were the product of a remarkable alignment. “You had the federal government looking at major infrastructure spending, you had a pandemic, [and] the whole discussion of what does ‘build back better’ really look like.”

Unifor had long supported electric cars, but not all decision-makers were receptive. “[In 2018] you had Trudeau talking about greening the economy and you had Doug Ford saying the total opposite.” But in spring 2020, word leaked that Ford Oakville was planning to discontinue the Edge SUV. “So I contacted Dearborn [Ford’s headquarters in Michigan] and said, ‘What’s going on?’” Dias discovered the Edge would indeed be phased out in Canada.

“So then we really started to push the narrative,” he recalls. “I spoke with the Prime Minister’s Office, with [Infrastructure Minister] Catherine McKenna, with [Industry Minister] Nav Bains.” Dias told them EVs are the future. “About 3% of the world market is electric vehicles, but by 2040 it will be 50%.”

He believes Ford had little choice. “They weren’t going to close the only assembly plant in Canada. There would have been a war!” he says. “I got a call from Jim Hackett, who was the outgoing CEO from Ford, and then I got a call from Jim Farley, the incoming CEO, telling me [that] we’ll find a solution.”

While the Ford and Fiat Chrysler deals are seen as environmental victories, Unifor’s agreement with the third of the Big Three is problematic. In November, GM announced it will invest up to $1 billion in its Canadian operations to build traditional pickup trucks. I ask Dias how this squares with his climate commitments.

“We needed to get people back to work. If it’s 50% EV by 2040, it’s still 50% [internal combustion] … the key thing is to have your hands in both pots. This was about a short-term solution with a vision to the long-term.”

Dias is a bridge between conflicting worlds. He calls himself an environmentalist but represents oil workers. He acknowledges the planet is moving away from fossil fuel but thinks a complete transformation in 20 years is “too aggressive.” He sees values in nuclear power as a climate solution but feels the technology gets a free pass while wind is unfairly criticized.

“We have a wind turbine on our education centre [property],” he says. “There is not an issue that creates more dissent with our union in the community than that wind turbine. You’ve got a nuclear power station 10 miles down the road that if it went sideways would blow up the entire community. But there’s no debate on that; the debate is about my one turbine.”

Dias was born into a union family in 1958. His father worked at De Havilland Aircraft, becoming president of the local in 1967. Dias began his own career at De Havilland, spent a year at York University (“I hated it”), then returned to the company in 1978 and became shop steward. “My parents come from Guyana,” he explains. “In Canada they say, ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ In Guyana they say, ‘Goats don’t make sheep.’”

Perhaps Dias’s leadership is best demonstrated by his participation in a January 2020 picket line at Regina’s Co-op oil refinery. There to support locked-out workers fighting for pensions, he was arrested for mischief and sent to jail – a situation no Canadian labour leader had faced since postal workers’ president Jean-Claude Parrot rejected back-to-work legislation and went to prison in 1980. “I would never expect our members to stand up to the police on a picket line without doing it myself,” Dias says. “You have to lead from the front.”

Dias’s worldview is, finally, pragmatic. In 2024, Fiat Chrysler’s Windsor plant will indeed produce electric vehicles – but also internal-combustion vehicles. “This is all about options,” he argues. “You can fly two kites at the same time.”

None of this detracts from his role in launching Canada’s entry into the major leagues of EV manufacturing.

Dias doesn’t drive a Tesla. He’s driving something greater.

Gideon Forman is a transportation policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation.

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