In this episode of OPSEU/SEFPO Talk, President Warren (Smokey) Thomas speaks with Unifor National President Jerry Dias on the importance of supporting local and Canadian businesses on the road to economic recovery.

Listen to this episode

00:06 Thomas: Hi everybody, Smokey Thomas here. You know there’s no doubt that it’s been a challenging year for us all, but for many folks including local and Canadian businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard hitting. Some have been forced to close their doors, and the rest need our help urgently.

So today, socially distance of course, I’m joined by Jerry Dias, national President of Unifor. Unifor, is Canada’s largest private sector union, and we’re gonna talk about the road ahead and what we can all do to support our local and Canadian businesses on the road to economic recovery.
These businesses and the worker they employer are the beating heart of our economy. And you now supporting them at this difficult time is our only hope for full recovery. So Jerry, I wanna say thank you for coming in and joining me. So, can we just get right to it?

1:04 Dias: Absolutely. I’m ready to roll my friend.
1:06 Thomas: I want to ask you a couple of questions. So, Jerry we live in an increasing globalize world, our economy isn’t confined to our borders, especially in the age of international trade agreements, and the importance of buying ‘made in Canada’ products isn’t new. So let me ask you, why is it so important in these COVID times to buy Canadian?

1:29 Dias: Well, we certainly live in a globalize world and I will argue that a lot of the decisions made by corporations and governments have really left us stranded as a nation when COVID hit. Think about the fact that we couldn’t provide the most basic security for Canadians. No personal protective equipment. No vaccines. No nothing. So we were forced to depend on other countries around the world to provide our security. So today’s discussion really is about buying Canadian. It’s about having the ability to put Canadians to work based on our needs as a nation. So this is incredibly long overdue. When we buy Canadian, when we shop in our communities it’s about putting money in the pockets for people to reinvest in the community. So it really is a circle, but it’s a circle that’s worth walking around, because it’s time we put people back to work.

2:23 Thomas: Yes, and just on that, what we’ve said to our members if you have a favourite restaurant, support them, because you want them to be there after the pandemic is over. You know, small businesses employ something like 90% of Ontarian’s, so I couldn’t agree more.
Friend, let me ask you a couple of other things. It is important to mention, to me in my mind anyway, that more income means more provincial revenue. It pays for the vital public services that supports Canadians and our most vulnerable citizens. We’ve seen just how crucial our public health care, education, social services sector have been during this pandemic, and it’s been a time like no other. So, from your point of view, what does recovery look like and what do you figure it’s going to take?

3:14 Dias: Well first of all, the pandemic has really shown us who the essential workers are. It’s not the stock brokers on Bay Street, it really is public sector workers. It really is health is health care workers and long-term facility and grocery store workers.

So there’s no question the economy or recovered economy has to center around: A) How do we keep people in work. B) How do we reward people that have done so much for us? So if you take a look at having people employed, you can’t have a strong public service without a strong public sector. It’s all intertwined. If you don’t have a strong manufacturing sector, where are you going to get the base? Where are you going to get the tax base in which to keep public sector workers performing the incredible duties they perform each and every day on behalf of Ontarians?

So it’s a vicious circle, but it’s a circle that we need to make sure that we develop and we strengthen, because putting people back to work is the only way that we are going to frankly, walk our way out of this pandemic from a strong economical point of view.

4:24 Thomas: And you and I have talked about this many many times. So the tax base, private and public, is a symbiotic relationship. You can’t have one without the other. And your union represents private and public, so I think as a labour leader, your point of view on this is very very valuable. That would bring me to my next question, you’ve recently launched a campaign, Unfior has, with ‘I shop Canada’ campaign. So, could you tell us a little bit about that? Cause I could say “I shop Canada, but I also shop Ontario”, if you live in Ontario.

5:09 Dias: Absolutely. It really is about utilizing the strengths that we have as a nation. I’m sick and tired of us being a nation that’s rich in natural and raw materials and resources, then we ship everything overseas and we buy back finished products. So the question is how do we put Canadians to work by utilizing our strengths? And over and above that, shopping Canadian is about investing in our communities. Why is it that the US can have a ‘Buy American’ strategy? Why is it that the European nations will come together and speak as one voice? Why is it that the Asian-pacific countries will utilize their resources, and tie together resources to put their own citizens to work? Yet, us here in Canada we have this mindset that says look, it’s about a free market. It’s about buying the cheapest product regardless of where their made. So I think the pandemic has changed how we think today. I think the fact that we embarrassed ourselves by being so unprepared, I think have changed the mindset. So today is really about the conversation, the long overdue conversation about how do we stimulate the economy. And I would suggest that investing in ourselves is the best place to start.

6:28 Thomas: That brings me to my next question or point. So labour leaders like you and I we get that right, and I think a lot of business leaders get that, even the Chambers of Commerce is coming out and saying some things like that. But we would need government to buy in as well. So what would your message be to the Premier of Ontario, all of the Premiers across the country, and to our Prime Minister?

6:50 Dias: So first of all, government spend $100 billion dollars a year on procurement. One hundred billion. And I have to say I tend to get annoyed, which is a dramatic understatement, when the federal government will purchase VIA Rail cars from Siemens to be manufactured in California. Why wouldn’t we do that in Thunder Bay? Why wouldn’t we do that in Winnipeg? So the message to the government, is that you have power, use it. But the other message to the government has to be that the days of signing trade deals which opens up our borders to outside countries to dump goods, while we have not negotiated reciprocal attachments to their economies the ability to sell in their markets doesn’t make any sense.

So we have to quit being the boy scouts of the world, we need to get aggressive, we need to be progressive, and we need to have a ‘Buy Canadian’ strategy that puts people to work, and with that, we need government. We need government legislation. We need government commitments.

7:54 Thomas: I agree. Governments have been doing subsidiary programs to help out small businesses, invest big amounts of money in big businesses to keep jobs here. I don’t think it’s any secret that those won’t last forever. So, would that come into that by Ontario by Canadians, so where would you figure that would help out small-medium size businesses like you know machine shops and all sorts of manufacturing.

8:25 Dias: Well let me give you an example. We just negotiated six billion dollars’ worth of investments for the auto industry in the last few months. Within that six billion dollars, will be probably the better part of a billion plus dollars from the two levels of government. I will argue that is a huge investment for the government. Why? Because you’re looking at for every one job in the auto industry, ten indirect jobs. So you’re not just talking about assembly plants, you’re talking about tool and die shops. You’re talking about ma and pop shops. You’re talking about the corner store, you’re talking about communities. So I will always argue that when governments invest a dollar, they usually get back a hundred dollar. Based on with the tax payers and what the companies pay back. We’re working class people. We don’t have these massive savings. We’re not investing in the stock market. Every dime our members make, is being poured back into the economy. And that’s what stimulates growth, and that’s what stimulate stability.

9:28 Thomas: So, just on that, on growth and sustainability, my generation, our generation, a lot of people told young people “oh you have to go to University”. Don’t get me wrong, we represent University workers, and I’m all for University degrees, but you’re in that industrial world right, a lot more than I am for example. So, for young folks looking at coming out of high school or college, or even University, what would you say to young people about looking at trades as a career choice?

10:02 Dias: Look, when I went to school, the students that were having difficultly were shipped to trade school, while the rest of us ended up taking arts programs. Well, who ended up better off? Because you’re not going to find any unemployed electricians today. You’re not going to find any unemployed tool and die makers and millwrights. Because it’s those types of skills that keeps the economy going. Their incredibly well paid, great benefits, great job security. So young people today ought not to be, you know listening being a leader in the gig economy. Because one thing that young people enjoy, and that’s the stability of a good job. Because young people today want the exact same as us, Smokey. They want to be able to provide for their families, and that happens with a stable job. So that’s what it’s all about, it’s about providing and it’s about walking down a path to give you and your family that type of stability that you’re looking for.

11:08 Thomas: And I would summed in that trades world that there’s room for women, young women and it doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from, what nationality, skills trades jobs there’s just thousand upon thousands waiting to have somebody to take up the job.

11:26 Dias: Look I’m doing projects with the Irving Shipyard in Halifax where we have women in trades. Where we’ve had two separate groups, two classes which have graduated where we now have dozens of women who are welders making over forty dollars an hour in the Irving Shipyard. We’re doing programs with Indigenous communities, because it’s about making sure our workplaces reflect the communities we live in. So the days of you know the trades being predominantly white men is changing. And it’s going to change because of the role of the labour moving in pushing equity and equality. So it’s about the broader discussion of which we can’t sit out. Because if you leave it for the corporate community to resolve those issues on their own, it’s going to be a long time coming. So we have to be strong voices and advocates for equity regardless of which group.

12:21 Thomas: I agree. So we’re in unprecedented times. I agree with you completely, in the whole world we got flat footed, but in Canada we got caught flat footed not ready. So in these unprecedented times, I agree with you, we don’t want to just survive, we want to thrive. How would we get Ontario and Canada a way forward to get back into economic prosperity and put people back to work and have good full-time jobs? What would be a couple of steps that you would see vital?

13:01 Dias: Governments have to be aggressive. This isn’t a time to be passive. This isn’t a time to be talking about the deficits that have been created. You have to spend yourself, I would argue, out of a recession. You can’t use a pandemic as a time to be cautious, you have to be aggressive. So governments have to invest. They’re gonna have to spend unprecedented monies on infrastructure.

But then we’re also going to have to take a look at what happened during the pandemic and the weakness that were exposed as a nation. So we know that coming out of the pandemic slowly who are being the most impacted: women, workers with disabilities, it’s clear. Women are slower to come back to work, workers with disability. So we see that the inequality and inequities within the system are being highlighted even more today.

So if you start to talk about how we create a fair and equitable society, if we’re going to treat men and women the same, then we’re going to have to eliminate the barriers that are leading to injustice. So we need to start talking about a national child care program. We saw that during the pandemic that the unemployment insurance system collapsed. They couldn’t keep up. So now we know that the government needs to put into place a strong EI system, which will make sure that more than 38% of the people actually qualify.

So then we need to have a discussion about a basic income. Why is it that we can agree on a floor during the CERP program during a pandemic, but yet we can’t agree with that principle overall. So we’ve seen that there is so much that we can do during a crisis, why don’t we adopt some of those principles and put it in place what is required post pandemic. But like I said, you’re going to have to take a look at the industries that are out there, the big job creators, and you’re going to have to play an active role in stabilizing and then building with them in the long term, because the only way you’re going to have a strong post pandemic economy is with a government with visions and governments that aren’t afraid to participate.

15:09 Thomas: So, picking up on that then. You and I have talked many many times about union leaders, business leaders, governments being able to put their partisanship aside. Come into a room, take that partisan hat off and let’s talk about what’s good for Ontario. Let’s talk about what’s good for Canada. So in that vein, the Premier of Ontario is creating an economic recovery table, I’m not quite sure how it’s going to look, but I’ve advocated to have labour have a very strong voice there. So in terms of labour, business, government working together, how would you see that work?

15:50 Dias: Well look, this is not a time for petty politics. Canadians, Ontarians, won’t tolerate it. People are looking for real solutions. Their looking for collaborations, their looking for cooperation. Today, I’ve spoken to the Premier. I spoke to Vic Fedeli. I spoke to the Solicitor General. I spoke to the Prime Minister’s office. And it was all about vaccines, rolling out the vaccines. Rapid testing. It’s about the different industries. It’s about the budget. So there was nothing about “hey your did this wrong”, “why aren’t you doing this” – none of this. It was about how do we work collaboratively. How do we just make sure that Canadians and Ontarians are safe. But what is this going to look like when we get through this? So it’s time for cooperation, and I think people are looking for that. People are demanding it, and they should expect that out of their leaders regardless if you’re in the labour movement, the corporate community, or if you’re a government official. People are expecting cooperation and that’s rightfully should be at the top of everybody’s thought process.

16:56 Thomas: I agree. Jerry, I couldn’t agree more. Labour, business, government, community, we all got to come together. We’re coming down to the end here, but I really like the campaign work that you’re doing ‘Buy Canadian’, we will support that obviously. But from your perspective, you’re my guest here, you throw in anything you want there in closing. Make an arguments if you will, make a pitch on anything that you like, the floor is yours my friend.

17:29 Dias: Well I have to say that its always my pleasure to work with the second most articulate labour leader in the country, Smokey, so thank you very much for your friendship. All nonsense aside, look, when we talk about public sector and private sector unions working together, I will say that you and embody that type of cooperation. Because our members aren’t just looking for solution, our members are looking for leadership. And our members are looking for people who can get stuff done. So it’s a real pleasure for me to be with you here today to talk about the things that are very important. And look we’re gonna get through this. We’re gonna get through this as a nation, and we’re gonna get through this as a labour movement. And the good thing about the labour movement is that being shy never got us anywhere. So now is the time for us to push: be aggressive, progressive and never be silenced. Today is our time, and I thank you my friend.

18:26 Thomas: Oh, I thank you for your time, and it’s always a pleasure to connect up with you Jerry. And we’ve been through a few battles together. Unifor-OPSEU /SEFPO we’ve done a lot of work together, and we still are. So thank you Jerry for coming in, and folks stay tuned and think about that: buy local, buy Ontario, buy Canada, and support local businesses. Because if you got that one restaurant you like, you know the local mom and pop, the dry cleaner, whatever the business is, think about buying local. Because you want those folks to come back and be stronger than ever, and they deserve your support, they deserve all of our support.

Thanks Jerry.

19:10 Dias: Thank you, Smokey.