Predecessor of Jerry Dias ‘disheartened’ over allegations against former Unifor head

The predecessor for the former national auto workers’ union president says he’s been left “disheartened” by new allegations against Jerry Dias — details that threaten the reputation the union has spent years trying to build.

Canada’s largest private sector union alleged Wednesday that its former national president Jerry Dias accepted $50,000 from a supplier of COVID-19 rapid test kits he promoted to employers of union members, several of whom purchased those test kits.

“It’s very much frustrating for me — to be the previous president and see that something could happen,” said Ken Lewenza, former national president of the Canadian Auto Workers union which merged to become Unifor in 2013.

“At the same time, I’m satisfied that our process worked.”

That process was an external investigation that was launched by Unifor in late January, alleging that Dias breached the union’s code of ethics. That conclusion was drawn based on a “balance of probabilities,” Unifor’s board said Wednesday, because Dias did not submit any evidence himself.

The board, however, is referring to the alleged incident as an “isolated” one. When asked if Dias’ actions over the past six months to a year needed to be reexamined, Lewenza said he “wo n’t go that far.”

“Because if you take a look at his history, and if you take a look at his success, and take a look at the influence he’s had with employers and government alike, in the interest of our members, there’s a lot of good news here ,” Lewenza said.

“But at the end of the day, he has to answer the allegations that were made and reported yesterday, and he himself at the appropriate time must go to our members, and explain the unethical behavior that has come up.”

A hearing is expected to take place in April where Dias could be stripped of his membership. It’s not clear whether or not Unifor’s national executive board will seek criminal charges against its former president.

“We’ve sought legal advice on our obligation arising out of this matter. We had advice throughout the process,” Unifor National’s secretary-treasurer Lana Payne said Wednesday.

“Now that we have the investigator’s report, we will continue to seek legal advice about this and live up to any obligations that we may need to follow through with there.”

While Unifor’s national executive board says the $50,000 that Dias allegedly accepted did not come from union dues, employment lawyer and partner at Workly Law Sunira Chaudhari said the allegations should be very problematic for the union’s membership.

“Members pay their dues for their president to fight on their behalf, not to take kickbacks, not to profit off of the power of negotiating on behalf of over 300,000 members,” she said.

Investigators say, on Jan. 20, Dias gave $25,000 to a Unifor employee, telling the employee it had come from the supplier. According to Payne, that employee filed a complaint before delivering the money to the union. Unifor has said it will not name that employee who accepted the $25,000 — nor will it name the supplier in question.

According to Chaudhari, those details would likely need to be forwarded to police if Unifor’s national executive board wants to move forward with filing criminal charges against Dias.

“Typically in a workplace context, you need to have voluntary participants in that process. You need somebody to back up the story as to why charges should be laid. And if Unifor is resistant, if the employee is resistant, if the entire institution is resistant, I would think it would be very difficult to proceed with criminal charges in this scenario,” she said.

“Fraud is found here. Bribery is found here. There could be a criminal aspect to this case, most definitely. But I think the concern really is going to be whether or not Unifor wants to take the reigns to participate in that process.”

Meanwhile, Dias has said he is entering a residential rehabilitation facility. In a statement released by the former Unifor head Wednesday, the 63-year-old said he’s been dealing with a “debilitating sciatic nerve issue” that pushed him toward alcohol, pain killers and sleeping pills as coping mechanisms which impaired his judgment “in recent months.”

Chaudhari said Dias’ choice to use his health “as a shield” may force Uniform to proceed with this matter in a very cautious matter.

“If you, as a member, declare some kind of disability or health issue, you are entitled to some accommodation. You are entitled to a little more grace, a little more sensitivity,” she said.

So this, to me, is a careful legal strategy that Mr. Dias has utilized… We haven’t seen the admission yet that he actually went ahead and accepted a bribe. But we know that he’s admitted that there has been some bad judgment in the last few months.”

– With files from CTV Windsor’s Michelle Maluske and The Canadian Press.

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