Sign in / Join

‘It’s an invasion’: Cross-border brawl between TTC union and its U.S. parent goes public

Former TTC union boss Bob Kinnear called his ouster by U.S.-based Amalgamated Transit Union “an outright attack.”

When Bob Kinnear was locked out of his office in early February by the American leadership of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) union, a private feud between two of Canada’s union heavyweights suddenly went public.

At the core of the bitter dispute are two conflicting perspectives: whether Kinnear, aided and abetted by Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, “went off the rails” and planned a hostile raid and takeover of the 11,000-member local he represented; or whether a “collection” of American union “thugs” attacked Canadian workers’ democratic rights to decide who represents them at the bargaining table.

Unifor president Jerry Dias argues his fight with the American-based Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) is absolutely the latter.

“I’m not a cheerleader in the labour movement,” Dias told Postmedia. “I’m going to say my piece. And if people don’t like it, that’s too damn bad.”

“Unifor is the largest private-sector union in the country and we have a responsibility to ensure democracy within the labour movement,” he said.

Unifor President Jerry Dias: “I’m going to say my piece. And if people don’t like it, that’s too damn bad.”

“And if we have a collection of thugs that are going to fire people, going to take their assets, going to do all these things to intimidate them, then I’m going to talk about it.”

Unifor has more than 310,000 members across the country.

U.S.-based ATU International is America’s largest transit union, representing more than 190,000 workers on both sides of the border.

The two are embroiled in a feud that surfaced after ATU’s American leadership turfed Kinnear, duck walked the union executive out the door, changed the locks on the local’s offices, placed the local under trusteeship, and blamed its actions on Kinnear’s “secretive effort to split Local 113 away from its fellow ATU Canada Locals.”

In fact, the Toronto local’s offices had been raided months earlier at the behest of the Washington-based parent union over ongoing concerns and records; documents and hard drives had been taken.

But what apparently sent the American head office over the edge was a request by Kinnear and Local 113 to the Canadian Labour Congress for an investigation into the relationship between Local 113 and the U.S. head office. Specifically, Kinnear asked whether TCC workers, if they so chose, could leave the ATU and join another union. The Canadian Labour Congress said they could.

In reaction, the ATU ousted Kinnear who, with Dias at his side, called a media conference to argue his side of the story.

“This is an outright attack, it’s an invasion, on our autonomy as Canadians and Canadian workers,” he said at the time.

Then, after launching a successful court action that saw him reinstated in his job, Kinnear abruptly resigned a month later on March 17.

Kinnear did not return repeated calls for comment.

For his part, ATU International president Larry Hanley maintains Kinnear, Dias and the leadership of the CLC are absolutely complicit in a raiding effort by Unifor targeting his union’s 11,000 TTC members.

“We got calls from Toronto saying that Bob Kinnear was going off the rails and was attempting to engage another union in the raid of the ATU,” Hanley told Postmedia, explaining why the local was put under trusteeship.

From the ATU’s perspective, this was not about democratic rights, but a naked and hostile takeover attempt made without the knowledge or consent of Local 113 members.

Unifor is “a struggling union in an industry that’s very challenged” and looking to grow by raiding ATU’s Local 113, Hanley suggests.

Dias counters that the right of Canadian workers to decide their own fate, not membership numbers, is the real issue.

“I don’t have any quarrels with international unions,” Dias said. “My problem is: does somebody have the right to sit in Washington and make a decision to fire 17 democratically elected Canadians? Does somebody in Washington have the right to seize the assets of Canadian workers? It’s the Canadian worker that paid for that union hall.”

Dias insists Unifor wasn’t raiding the ATU, but said the next time a group of workers wants to leave their union and join another, and their local is put into trusteeship to prevent it, he’s going to court.

The union president points to several examples of where ATU big-footed the Canadian locals.

Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 showing their displeasure with TTC union boss Bob Kinnear, Feb. 27, 2017.

In one case, American ATU delegates prevented the election of Kinnear to a key position — ATU international vice-president.

The ATU constitution also makes it nearly impossible for its members to change unions, and gives the parent enormous power to seize the local’s assets if it does break away.

“In Toronto, if 10 workers wanted to stay with the ATU and 11,000 wanted to leave, they can’t,” Dias said. “This is what I’m fighting against.”

Professor Larry Savage, director of the Brock University Centre for Labour Studies, suggests the festering disagreement between Unifor and ATU will dominate talk among rank and file delegates at the next meeting of the Canadian Labour Congress in Toronto, a once-every-three-years event.

“I don’t want to pretend like the dispute is not severe, because I think it is a severe dispute. You rarely hear about these things until they boil over,” Savage said.

“But I suspect that the leadership of the Canadian Labour Congress will try to contain the debate because they don’t want an incident at the convention that will potentially divide the labour movement and deepen the divisions.”

Savage suggested two fundamental and deeply held views of the labour movement are at odds here.

“The principle that Jerry Dias really hangs his hat on is the principle of union democracy and that workers ought to have the right to choose the union that they want representing them,” he said.

On the other hand, the principle of solidarity — that unions shouldn’t use their resources fighting each other — is deeply entrenched in the labour movement, he said.

Following the uproar in the Toronto local, Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff ordered a probe and released an investigator’s report into the dispute.

The report found the ATU had been less than co-operative with the CLC and their claims “full of falsifications.”

“The report sheds light on many of the public allegations and reiterates the notion that there is always more than one side to a story,” Yussuff wrote in a March 27 letter.

“As you can imagine, I have been extremely frustrated by the public nature in which the ATU and others have chosen to attack the CLC and my handling of this file.”

Bob Kinnear speaks to reporters after being ousted as head of TTC workers’ union on Feb. 3, 2017.

Canadian Labour Congress investigator Barry Thorsteinson’s report found Unifor did violate the Canadian Congress’ constitution, which requires a union notify the national body before making overtures to members of another affiliated union.

However, Thorsteinson’s report also countered the ATU’s claim that Kinnear went rogue.

There was “abundant evidence” that executive board members at Local 113 supported Kinnear, his report says.

Thorsteinson also reported TTC union rank and file members were subjected to an “allegedly sanctioned fear campaign” by ATU, threatened with the loss of pensions, their collective agreement, even wages or jobs.

“In fairness, I have yet to verify if these allegations are true, due to the end of further investigation,” the report says.

Hanley flatly denied the Local 113 members received threats from ATU.

For his part, Dias suggests the dispute between the two union heavyweights isn’t over.

Workers shouldn’t have to fear reprisals if they want to change unions, and local executives elected by their Canadian members should not be swept aside as a way to shut them up, he said.

“The argument is, ‘You keep your nose out of my business,’ ” he said. “Well, the reality is, it is my business.”