September 20, 2016 / 12:12 AM / 2 years ago

Canadian auto union head faces high-stakes fight in GM talks

TORONTO, Sept 19 (Reuters) - Canadian autoworkers’ union president Jerry Dias once publicly invited a critic to kiss his behind, but the tough-as-nails image overshadows a deft touch in negotiations, people familiar with him said.

Dias, 57 is leading Canadian contract talks for workers of General Motors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ford Motor Co, whose four-year labor contract expires at midnight.

The Unifor autoworkers’ union chose GM as its strike target and is demanding the company commit to producing new vehicle models in its Oshawa, Ontario plant.

Choosing GM as the strike target is a high-stakes gambit, given there is no obvious new vehicle production that could be assigned to Oshawa.

GM has said it will not commit to building new models in Canada until it has a contract in hand. Dias says Unifor will not sign a contract without that promise.

“If we’re going to have a dust up, we might as well have it immediately,” said Dias, who became Unifor president in 2013.

GM has been the most reluctant of the three automakers to invest fresh money in Canada. The country has seen those dollars go to lower-cost sites in the southern United States and Mexico.

Now, Dias will either lead Canada’s first auto strike in 20 years or secure a contract with GM against the odds, which could bolster union confidence as it heads into talks with Ford and Fiat Chrysler.

“Unifor was built to fight,” he said at a 2014 United Auto Workers convention. “We’re sick and tired of playing defense and it’s about time that we started to play offence.”

Dias, who grew up in a union family, began work at de Havilland Aircraft in 1978, becoming a union plant steward, chair and president in 1987. His father, Jerry Dias Sr., worked at the same plant and was also union local president.

When Boeing put de Havilland up for sale in 1990, Dias demonstrated strategic smarts in the way he led a fight to secure a better deal, said Roland Kiehne, a co-worker at the time.

Alongside organizing lunch-time demonstrations that emptied the plant, Dias sued the Canadian government for breach of trust over the deal and convinced politicians to get involved.

It worked, and De Havilland was sold to Canadian plane maker Bombardier.

A fitness buff, Dias can whip up union delegates with impassioned speeches, once inviting a critic who called him one of Canada’s five most feared men to “kiss my union ass” at a public rally.

Dias said automotive executives talk in specifics at contract talks and expect the same of him.

“These aren’t charm school graduates. These are people who run major corporations,” he said in an interview. “We ought not mislead each other or soft pedal the delivery of what our expectations are.”

But he is also a pragmatist who knows how to get a settlement, said Buzz Hargrove, former president of the Canadian Auto Workers, which merged with another union to form Unifor in 2013.

Hargrove hired Dias as his assistant in 2007 after watching him craft deals that improved worker benefits at de Havilland’s Toronto plant.

“He’s not shy. He’ll pick up the phone and call the prime minister if he thinks it makes sense. And he may very well have to do that before this bargaining is concluded,” Hargrove said.

“He knows how to get out on a limb, but he also knows how to get back.” (Reporting by Susan Taylor; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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