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Newly elected Unifor national president Lana Payne at the union's national convention in Toronto on Aug. 10.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Lana Payne, a former journalist who built her career in labour activism in the Atlantic provinces, was decisively elected as the new leader of Unifor, replacing beleaguered former union head Jerry Dias, after a long and contentious campaign.

She is the first woman to head Canada’s largest private-sector union and had served as secretary-treasurer of Unifor since 2019. In that role, she shepherded Unifor through a public ethics crisis involving Mr. Dias, who was found by the union to have breached its constitution by allegedly receiving a $50,000 payment from a supplier of COVID-19 test kits, in exchange for selling them to union members.

The election is the first contested one since Unifor’s founding in 2013 and took place at the union’s fourth convention in Toronto. Mr. Dias was elected president in 2013 and held the role until his abrupt departure this year.

“Today we turn a page, today we will move forward. … We can build working-class power across our union and across the country. We can be principled and smart in our fights and we will be,” she told a crowd of more than 1,000 delegates who had gathered for the vote, just minutes after she was declared victorious.

Unifor has approximately 315,000 members, including some Globe and Mail employees.

It was a tight race, pitting Mr. Dias’s former assistant Scott Doherty, a long-time trade unionist himself, against Ms. Payne. Mr. Dias’s ethics scandal loomed large over Unifor’s election, causing significant disunity within the national executive board and among locals. Supporters of Mr. Doherty had publicly accused Ms. Payne of deliberately publicizing hundreds of pages of meeting minutes and a summary report of a third-party investigation into Mr. Dias in order to benefit her campaign. They argued it eroded the credibility of Unifor.

Ms. Payne campaigned on a platform of transparency and accountability, promising more scrutiny on matters such as staff expenses, and pledging to closely address culture and governance issues within the top brass of the union. In multiple campaign speeches in the lead-up to Wednesday’s vote, she emphasized the need for new union leadership to govern from the “ground up, not the top down.”

Ms. Payne began working in the labour movement more than three decades ago, with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, which was a part of the Canadian Auto Workers union. Before becoming Atlantic regional director for Unifor, she was the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, and wrote a column for the province’s daily newspaper, The Telegram, for more than 20 years.

“She is a uniter. Confrontation is the last thing she wants,” remarked Sid Ryan, a long-time labour leader and former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour who worked closely with Ms. Payne during her time in Newfoundland. “She looks at the bigger picture. What is impacting workers right now and what pressure do we need to apply on corporations and governments?”

Mr. Doherty had run a campaign that was largely based on his background as a firm negotiator, telling delegates and members that it was vital the union elect someone who had the best skills in bargaining for better working conditions in an inflationary environment. But his credibility was marred by his own link to the Dias scandal, noted Larry Savage, a professor of labour studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

Mr. Doherty was a close friend and long-time assistant to Mr. Dias. The third-party report, prepared by the law firm Turnpenney Milne, found that Mr. Doherty had made contact with Chris MacDonald, another long-time assistant of Mr. Dias who was the whistle-blower in the whole affair, during the investigation. The report suggested that he pressed Mr. MacDonald to drop the complaint about Mr. Dias to the union. Mr. Doherty has repeatedly denied this.

“I think Doherty’s campaign was brought down by the scandal,” said Prof. Savage. “The union is in a much better position to turn the page on Jerry Dias. If Doherty had won, that would be an albatross around the union’s neck for much longer,” he added.

A bag of cash and a bottle of cologne: Inside the undoing of Unifor’s Jerry Dias

Unifor held the leadership election as the Canadian economy is faced with a tight labour market, surging inflation and the possibility of a recession. At a press conference shortly after she was elected, Ms. Payne told reporters that Unifor’s priority was to work as hard as possible for workers at the bargaining table.

“There’s an affordability crisis in this country. Inflation is sky high and we also have a situation with central bankers raising interest rates at a pace we have not seen in decades. Workers should not be paying for all this. They did not cause the problem.”

The vote began at roughly 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, with three candidates in contention – Ms. Payne, Mr. Doherty and the head of Unifor Local 444 Dave Cassidy.

Unifor’s constitution dictates that the winning candidate must receive a majority of the votes cast. In the first round of voting, Ms. Payne secured 46 per cent of the vote, Mr. Doherty 36 per cent and Mr. Cassidy 18 per cent.

Ms. Payne was then elected as national president in the second round of voting, with 61 per cent of the vote. Supporters of Ms. Payne’s campaign – Len Poirier and Daniel Cloutier – were elected secretary-treasurer and Quebec director, respectively.

“The delegates have stated clearly that reaffirming and strengthening Unifor’s commitment to accountability and transparency is a top priority, in the wake of the events of the last few months,” said Jim Stanford, director of the Vancouver-based Centre for Future Work and a former policy director at the Canadian Auto Workers.

Dr. Stanford added that with the leadership race “settled,” the road was clear for Unifor to recommit to good governance practices.

Tony Leah, a former General Motors worker, and chairperson of Unifor Local 222 in Oshawa, Ont., told The Globe that he hoped Ms. Payne’s administration would be open to thinking deeply about the problems the union is facing and how to resolve them. “It’s not just the Dias scandal. It’s about Unifor’s relationship with the Canadian Labour Congress, pensions for retirees, wages and other issues. There is a lot to do, going forward.”