Unifor elects Lana Payne to succeed Jerry Dias as president following ethics scandal

Three candidates competed for the position of national president of Canada’s largest union in its first contested election since 2013.

Link to full article here

Rosa Saba Business Reporter

Wed., Aug. 10, 2022


Unifor delegates elected their first woman president Wednesday in a tumultuous campaign following an alleged kickback scandal involving former leader Jerry Dias. Former secretary-treasurer Lana Payne won by a significant margin, beating out Dias’s pick for the job.

It was the first contested election since Unifor’s founding convention in 2013 when Dias was elected president. Unifor is Canada’s largest private-sector union, representing 315,000 workers in a variety of sectors, including Toronto Star employees.

Dias was set to retire this year, but retired early amid an investigation into an alleged kickback he received from a company supplying COVID-19 rapid tests. The investigation found that Dias allegedly received $50,000 in exchange for promoting those tests to Unifor employers, and gave half the sum to his then assistant Chris MacDonald, who filed a complaint with the union.

Payne beat former assistant to the president Scott Doherty, as well as the president of Windsor-based Unifor Local 444, Dave Cassidy. Brock University labour professor Larry Savage said Wednesday’s election is historic, not just because Dias’ reign is over, but because Payne is the first woman to lead a large national private sector union in Canada.

Payne addressed delegates after the new national board was elected.

The emotion was obvious in her voice as she thanked delegates for their votes, and thanked her opponents.

“Today we turn a page. Today we move forward,” she said. “Today and every day, we put our members at the heart of everything we do.”

Payne won the first ballot with more than 45 per cent of the vote. The election then proceeded to a second ballot between Payne and runner-up Doherty, as Unifor requires 51 per cent or more to win an election. Payne won the second ballot with 60.8 per cent of the vote.

The result is something nobody would have seen coming in February, Savage said, but it’s clear the Dias scandal had a significant impact on Doherty’s campaign, which would have otherwise been a surefire win. His association with and endorsement from Dias, once a boon, became an albatross.

“I think that Scott Doherty was a victim of the scandal,” said Savage.

Payne said she thinks the way Unifor handled the scandal and the fallout has helped to protect the union’s reputation and the trust of members. Moving forward, she has promised to create an independent integrity officer position to oversee the code of ethics, has already begun plans for a task force to review lessons learned from the Dias scandal, and said she plans to improve internal practices of the union.

“I think we’ve shown a lot in the last six to eight months exactly how committed we are to improve things,” she said.

“Now we have to turn a page and build a new union going forward.”

Savage said Payne emerged as a clear choice for delegates in part because of the way she handled the scandal and its fallout.

But she had another thing going for her, said Savage. Unlike Doherty, she wasn’t perceived as carrying on the legacy of Dias.

“If we understand this election as a referendum on the legacy of Jerry Dias, I think that we also see that delegates were looking for a little bit of a change.”

Doherty tried to position himself as a “change agent” despite the odds, said Savage.

“I just don’t think people were convinced.”

Doherty was interviewed as part of the Dias investigation. The final report found that upon learning of the formal complaint against him, Dias “began to exert pressure directly and indirectly on MacDonald to drop” it. MacDonald was subjected to “increased pressure,” including from Doherty, who Dias “knew was a friend” of MacDonald, the investigation said.

At the time of the report, the investigator wrote that Doherty had yet to provide “relevant documentation” requested of him.

In a previous statement to the Star, Doherty said he fully complied with the investigation, and that many of his messages with Dias were through the Signal app, wherein messages automatically disappear after a certain period of time. He said he wasn’t aware of the details of the complaint against Dias when he spoke with MacDonald, and never suggested the complaint be withdrawn.

“I’ve never once tried to cover up for Jerry Dias,” Doherty said in a board meeting, a sentiment MacDonald seconded.

Since all of Dias’ former assistants stood behind Doherty during the election, Savage predicts Payne will “clean house.” When asked if this was true, Payne said, “I have no plans about any of that yet. I just got elected.”

Doherty said he respects the decision of Unifor voters and wants to move on from a tumultuous election with a united front. The labour movement needs Unifor to be strong and cohesive, he said.

“Our union needs to move forward.”

Doherty said he thinks his campaign was smeared due to his association to Dias, but said the members have spoken, and “it is what it is.”

When asked if he’s concerned about his future at the union, Doherty, who is still an assistant to the national president, deferred to Payne.

“I will respect whatever they decide to do.”

Cassidy said while he’s disappointed by the results, he plans to fight for one of his key campaign promises, a forensic audit of the union.

“I think that our union needs to heal a little bit,” he said.

“We’re going to gain the respect and the trust of our members back.”

The kickback scandal caused division among the National Executive Board, which was further disrupted by Payne’s late-in-the-game decision to run for president. Payne, who had a key role in handling the investigation fallout, has been criticized for using the situation to benefit her campaign, an accusation she denies.

In June, several Unifor members accused Payne of abusing her position on the national board to benefit her campaign, including the cancellation of a special convention to elect a new president after Dias’s resignation. The complaints were dismissed by the executive board. Payne has denied using her position on the board to benefit her campaign.

“I decided to run to be Unifor National President because I was concerned about the future of the union and how some responded to the ongoing investigation and the alleged breach of the code of ethics,” she previously told the Star.

Payne was the first woman to hold the national secretary-treasurer role after being elected in 2019. She began her work with the labour movement in 1991 with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers/Canadian Auto Workers, and was previously the Atlantic Regional Director for Unifor.

She is a former journalist and has also been the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.

Payne’s platform focused on accountability and transparency. She talked on Tuesday at the nominations about the importance of seizing the current moment in the labour movement, one marked by increased worker unrest amid inflation and high corporate profits.

“We have an organizing moment that we have been building for our entire lifetime,” Payne said.

With files from Sara Mojtehedzadeh