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TRADE

Unifor's Jerry Dias emerges as key voice on NAFTA

Tough-talking union president, representing more than 300,000 Canadian workers, has become a constant presence in trade talks

Unifor president Jerry Dias speaks with director Mohamad Alsadi in Ottawa.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Jerry Dias's phone rings.

The national president of Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada, is having breakfast at a downtown Ottawa diner, preparing for the third round of talks on the North American free-trade agreement.

It's a topic that elicits strong feelings from the born-and-bred labour activist, who proudly admits he doesn't censor himself in expressing his opinions.

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"The only way this thing gets done by the end of the year is if the U.S. gets off their crap," Mr. Dias said, sipping black coffee.

"They really do work on the premise that everybody is stupid, which I find fascinating."

The subject of his ire, this time, is U.S. President Donald Trump's Buy American strategy: a vague proposal designed to benefit U.S. companies with nothing in return for Canada or Mexico.

Mr. Dias takes part in a demonstration in downtown Ottawa.

"They're trying to be the bully and I find it quite funny," said Mr. Dias, who casually refers to Mr. Trump as a "complete lunatic."

"I'm a pretty tough guy to bluff."

It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Dias's comments themselves as bluster: the musings of a working-class outsider far removed from the buttoned-up bureaucrats at the negotiating table.

But then comes that early morning phone call.

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"Should I take this?" Mr. Dias asks. He turns the phone to show the caller ID: Steve Verheul, Canada's chief NAFTA negotiator.

"We're going to have dinner," Mr. Dias said later, "and we're going to get at it."

Mr. Dias takes part in a taping of Question Period with Evan Solomon at CTV.

Breakfast was just the first stop for Mr. Dias in a full day that included high-level meetings, an appearance at a rally and frequent phone calls on downtown Ottawa sidewalks as he walked from one event to another.

As Canada prepares to host the third round of free-trade talks, Mr. Dias – a compact, thick-haired, tough-talking 58-year-old who represents more than 300,000 workers in the auto and energy sectors – has emerged as a major player in the negotiations. (Unifor, which formed four years ago from an amalgamation of the Canadian Auto Workers union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, also represents employees at media companies, including The Globe and Mail.)

Mr. Dias has been a constant presence at the talks – he is holding a NAFTA-themed cocktail party on Tuesday night in Ottawa – and has access to the most powerful people on Parliament Hill.

Along with Mr. Verheul, Mr. Dias met last week with Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's principal secretary. The two discussed the recent claims from U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that automobiles made in Canada and Mexico do not have enough content manufactured in the United States. "I can tell you, Wilbur is wrong," Mr. Dias said. "They're posturing."

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His insider access is a far cry from the era of Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, whom Mr. Dias said he met only once, when he ran into him at a Toronto Raptors basketball game. "He had a charisma bypass operation years ago, and it was a total success," Mr. Dias said.

Mr. Dias said he still considers himself a New Democrat because of the party's historic ties to the working class. But he said he shifted away from the party during the 2015 election, when leader Tom Mulcair proposed balanced budgets and Mr. Dias's sole concern was that the Conservatives be defeated. He said the Liberals, including Mr. Butts, reached out to him repeatedly during the campaign. The Trudeau government now regularly consults Mr. Dias and other union leaders.

Mr. Dias reads a copy of an article given to him from a member of the PMO outside Langevin Block.

"[Mr. Trudeau] is the first prime minister I can think of in a long time that talks openly about having a strong labour movement in Canada," Mr. Dias said. "He doesn't view us as the enemy. He sees us as a natural ally in trying to build a strong economy. And we're not used to that."

If Mr. Dias has anything in common with Mr. Trump – aside from an affinity for the camera – it's his belief that NAFTA has sent jobs to Mexico, where workers are paid much less.

It's an issue that is playing out in Ingersoll, Ont., where union workers at the General Motors Cami Automotive assembly plant are on strike to demand more job security. The company shifted production of another GM vehicle to Mexico during the summer, a move that will result in hundreds of layoffs.

Mr. Dias calls the situation "the poster child for what's wrong with NAFTA."

He stops and paces for about 20 minutes as he argues on the phone with a senior GM executive. "Another Christmas card I won't be getting this year," he says as he hangs up.

Mr. Dias is using his new-found platform to push for stronger labour standards in the new NAFTA, including for Mexican workers, and is urging Canada to walk away from the talks if they are not included.

Mr. Dias said he still considers himself a New Democrat because of the party’s historic ties to the working class.

"There has to be an overhaul [of the agreement]. Because if it's a tweak, we'll be opposing it strenuously," Mr. Dias said.

"It's not like I'm this greedy union thug that doesn't get it. I get it. Profitable companies are a wonderful thing, and that's what I want. … But there's also got to be some fairness in the damn thing."

Mr. Dias, who got his start on the shop floor at de Havilland Aircraft in Toronto, said he is in regular contract with union members. He makes $154,000 a year as national president. "I'm the local guy that did well," he said.

Most of all, Mr. Dias said he himself is surprised by his active involvement on the trade file.

"If we weren't here, it would be a much different conversation," Mr. Dias said. "The Canadian government is allowing me to play my role."

He adds, "Well, I'm going to anyway."

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