DETROIT — Jerry Dias, the always- quotable president of the Canadian union Unifor, stopped by Automotive News last week. As expected, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he predicts will "blow up" in 2018, was top of mind. But he also ruminated on a host of topics, including U.S. President Donald Trump ("We think he's dangerous and foolish"), the UAW's corruption scandal ("It's frankly embarrassing, and it hurts the labor movement") and Mexico's working conditions ("If I ran for the president of Mexico, I'd get elected"). Here's some of the conversation.
On the future of Canadian manufacturing:
That's why NAFTA's important, because we've lost about half a million manufacturing jobs in Canada. Half a million. Our manufacturing base is pretty well wiped out. So the only way we're going to fix it is by fixing the trade agreements.
The best thing Canada can do as a nation is keep away from the bargaining table. Countries that we do not have a formal trade agreement with, exports from Canada to those countries go up 7 percent a year. Countries that we have a formal free trade agreement with, exports from Canada to those countries go up 1.2 percent a year. So we can't bargain ourselves out of a wet paper bag. Pre-NAFTA, we had a trade surplus in manufacturing; today we have a $120 million deficit. It's an opportunity to fix things.
On talks with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about NAFTA:
Once Canada and Mexico got the indication that the U.S. wasn't serious about an agreement, it's all done. I had a white pad with blue stripes. I said to Wilbur Ross, "If you were to tell me that's a white pad with blue stripes, I would disagree." You can't get the Canadian team to agree on anything right now. The bottom line — we've all been around the bargaining table — is the old game: Extract as much as you can upfront, and if the deal falls apart, I'll put that in my back pocket and then as I go toward the deadline, I'll try to get more. That's the U.S.'s strategy right from the beginning. The only problem is, we figured that out even before we got to the bargaining table on the first day. So the Canadian team has been very aggressive in their proposals and isn't moving.
On his relationship with Ross:
The reason I have a relationship with him is that I occupied his plant. In 2008-2009 he owned Collins & Aikman as a part of IAC. When the industry went for a crash in '08-'09, our plant went bankrupt and they owed our members about $6 million in severance. So we occupied the plant and we got Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota. We kept all the parts captive. We shut down all their assembly lines until they ponied up the money. So if you go into Wilbur Ross' office today you'll see it has a Collins & Aikman plaque. So whenever I go visit him I always take his plaque and sit it in front of me. We always have a good laugh.
I've met with him three times. Twice, Trump has called. It's funny, the door will open into his office and his support staff will say, "The president would like to speak to you." And I'll say, "Tell him to call back!" And he'll laugh and say, "Get out of here." And then I leave. It's not illegal to have fun.
On visiting Mexico:
I had a press conference. There had to be about 50 people around me. I started talking about how the industrial system is corrupt. Why is it that Mexican workers can never afford the cars they build? It's about exploitation. I walked right through it. I said the reason for the system is the president of Mexico should be ashamed of himself. He should have resigned. As I'm laying this out in front of a big media scrum, I get squeezed. I take a look, and it's my two bodyguards. At the end after the presser, they stopped me. They said, "Are you nuts? You can't say that stuff. You're going to get us killed!" I said, "That's why I hired you two." The next day they showed up in an armored vehicle, a big Suburban.
On UAW corruption allegations:
It's frankly embarrassing, and it hurts the labor movement. I'm surprised by it. I knew Al Iacobelli [FCA's former top negotiator, charged with involvement in a conspiracy to embezzle money from a UAW training fund] for years, when he was with FCA. He was about No. 4 on the food chain, and that was about where I was at the time, so we worked together. I never saw any of this coming. That just kind of threw me right off. It's just unbelievable. We've got a much different structure in Canada. We don't have the training funds. I don't have the Jerry Dias Charity where I send money to. You need to clean it up for sure because perception is everything. And it's too bad because here you have people who organize charities for good reasons. I would like to think that, and I believe that in almost all circumstances, a lot of vice presidents would have had a charity as a mechanism to utilize their profile to do good. As long as people perceive us as really only giving a damn about ourselves, the labor movement will never grow. So the labor movement has to be a social entity. It has to be a player in a community in which we live.
On FCA in Canada after the 2016 labor negotiations:
Brampton was a problem and it still is. We bargained $325 million for the paint shop. The plant will be down for five weeks next summer as they start to do some of the refurbishing. But the key piece on Brampton is we need to know what the next vehicle looks like. Because they're not going to spend $325 million to completely refurbish the paint shop and then change the platform, then all of a sudden it just doesn't fit. So you're going to make some investments to make sure that you keep things rolling along. And some of the investments, it doesn't matter what the platform is, will be adaptable. So there's still some things up in the air as it relates to Chrysler. But the minivan plant is solid.
On FCA's future:
That's an interesting one. They've exited the small-car business, but they've got some strong brands. Their pickup trucks aren't going anywhere. The Jeep brand isn't going anywhere. If you look at Canada, oddly enough, FCA is our biggest employer. The minivan plant is three shifts, full out. The Brampton plant, though the existing portfolio is starting to get a little tired, is still a solid two-shift operation. Tooling's long been paid off, so every car that rolls off the assembly line in Brampton is straight cash. So it's hard to tell. They don't have the cash flow as others, that's for damn sure. But I think they're going to be fine. I think they've got good vehicles.
My filter gets clogged frequently and it doesn't work. I've already been told, because of the serious issues around mental illness, I can't say that Donald Trump is nuts, crazy, all things I've called him publicly in the media. So I'm not saying that anymore. If I agree with him on one thing, it's that NAFTA's been flawed for the working-class people of the United States and Canada.
On Unifor's strike of GM's CAMI plant this year:
Our members certainly wanted a fight. Our members were frustrated because they worked for eight years, six days a week and we lost the Terrain and they had 600 less jobs. So they were furious. There's this legitimate mindset that says if I do well, then I'll be taken care of. That bond was broken. Our members were looking for some satisfaction, but they were also mad. Sometimes you have to blow off some steam in order to refocus.
Now GM, are they mad? The answer is yes. Their argument was that they invested all this money in the plant, so why would you strike us when we've already shown our commitment? But when you look at the 600 less jobs, I've got a body shop that's empty. They can put it back in, this argument that it can only go from Canada to the U.S. or Mexico, but it can't go from Mexico or the United States back to Canada, I don't buy the argument. It just can't be a one-way street all the time. GM's going to have to get over it. They have to, at a minimum, understand why we had the fight. In my opinion, they could have given us the language we wanted, after what they put our members through at CAMI. So everybody's a little sore right now. But I'll argue that sometimes you're better off if everybody's a little sore than if one person's really sore and one person is really happy.
On why the union agreed to end its strike:
Look, there's no question in my mind that if we kept the strike going for another two weeks, then it may have had a different outcome. But even if it had a different outcome, sometimes you end up with short-term gain but serious long-term pain.
There's one thing about having a good fight with General Motors. I think there's something else about rubbing their face in it that would be problematic. GM threatened to start to ramp up production of the Equinox [in Mexico] and even though they couldn't have ramped it up in time to deal with the immediate problems, the facts are if they would have went full-bore and ramped up Equinox, the question would have been, when the market starts to soften, where does the volume come out? My guess is that if they went through the expense of ramping up in Mexico, any reduction in volume would have come out of CAMI. So that was the mindset behind it. And plus, GM agreed to some stuff at the bargaining table which will be helpful to us. So it's not as if we just rolled and got nothing.
I was just in China because Canada started talking about a trade deal with China. You're going to talk to China about putting together a free-trade agreement when they are the No. 1 human rights violators in the world? Canada's got about a $43 billion trade deficit with China, so if you're looking to talk trade with China, the first question has to be: How do we lower that? I went through an auto plant in China.
And I started talking with the plant manager about contract negotiations. He informed me that not only was he plant manager, he was head of the bargaining committee. How the hell do you bargain with yourself?
So am I nervous about China? You're damn right I am. Am I ever. When you can build an electric vehicle and sell it for half the price that we would, then we've got a problem.