Born and raised in Toronto.
My parents lived a classic immigrant life here in Canada. They located here from another country to, hopefully, be able to give their children the opportunity that they never had. My mother worked at a factory for years, and years – Jerry Dias.
The Portuguese-Guyanese-Canadian Jerry Dias was born in Toronto in 1958 into a working class immigrant household and neighbourhood. He followed in his union leader father’s footsteps and became one of Canada’s most influential trade unionists as the founding president of Unifor, the largest private sector union in the country.
Born on October 10, 1958, in Toronto, Jerry Dias is a fifth-generation descendant of immigrants from Madeira island who settled in Guyana in the late nineteenth century. Like many Portuguese in this former British colony, Dias’ grandfather was a businessman who owned a timber company in Mahaica, about an hour outside the nation’s capital Georgetown. Dias’s father, Jerome (Jerry Sr.), moved to Canada alone in 1953 and settled in Toronto. The fact that both Guyana and Canada were part of the British Commonwealth made it easier for Jerry Sr. to choose the latter instead of the United States. Jerry’s mother, Mary Juliet, followed her husband over a year later and left their two baby daughters behind with their grandmother. About four years later, they joined their parents in Toronto, where Jerry and another sister were later born.
Dias’ describes his upbringing as a typical working-class immigrant experience, living in a small house in a close-knit multicultural community on Birchmount Park, in the East end of Toronto. He was a student at St. Joachim’s Elementary and Neil McNeil Catholic High schools, and went to church at Our Lady of Fatima at Victoria Park and St. Clair Avenue. Dias grew up immersed in Canadian culture but always remained aware and proud of his Portuguese-Guyanese heritage. His parents worked hard. Mary ran a machine at W.J. Gage, an envelope-making factory, where she was a member of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP). Jerry Sr. worked various jobs before finding employment at de Havilland Aircraft in Downsview, North York, alongside other immigrants from various parts of the world, including Portugal. His father became involved in the local United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 112, first as a shop steward and then as president between 1967 and 1978. After that, he joined the UAW’s national office after being asked by its president Bob White.
Jerry Dias started working at de Havilland in 1978. He followed in his father’s footsteps and became involved with Local 112. In 1987, Dias became president of the Canadian Auto Workers (formerly UAW) Local 112, a position he held until 1993. Like his father, Dias moved up to the CAW national office as the aerospace sector coordinator. He later became a senior assistant to the national president Buzz Hargrove and Kew Lewenza Sr.
On August 31, 2013, Dias became the first president of Unifor at its founding convention in Toronto. Formed from the amalgamation of the CEP and the CAW, Unifor became Canada’s largest private sector union with about 310,000 members in multiple industries. As the national leader of Unifor, re-elected in 2016 and 2019, Dias was involved in many high profile campaigns and negotiations, and became a well-known scrappy labour leader with frequent political interventions. He presided over Unifor’s split from the Canadian Labour Congress in 2018; advised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2019 negotiations for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement; led the successful “Save Oshawa GM” campaign to save the General Motors plant in that city that included television ads during the Superbowl ad the Grammys, demonstrations, and a concert by Sting; was arrested in 2020 on a picket line at the Co-op Refinery in Regina, Saskatchewan, during a contentious but successful six-month labour battle over benefits; and chaired Premier Doug Ford’s Council on U.S. Trade and Industry Competitiveness, created to oppose “buy American” policies detrimental to Ontario industries.
Dias’ hard-talking persona was partly built by his media appearances and news-making statements. Maclean’s magazine considered him one of the 50 most powerful people in Canada in 2013 and 2020, the Toronto Star considered him Newsmaker of the Year in 2016 and 2020, and many other news outlets covered Dias’ work throughout his presidency of Unifor.
On March 11, 2022, Dias announced his early retirement following a month-long medical leave. A few days later, it was reported that he had been under investigation by the Toronto police’s financial crimes unit for allegedly accepting a bribe from a pharmaceutical company in exchange for pushing its COVID-19 testing kits to companies organized by Unifor. In a public statement issued after this investigation became public, Dias announced that his over consumption of alcohol and painkillers to cope with a sciatic nerve problem had impaired his judgment, and that he was entering a rehabilitation program.
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