Date of birth and death: September 20, 1913 – April 28, 1998
Place of birth: Vigonovo, Veneto region, Italy
Arrival in Canada: 1947-8
Affiliations: Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association Local 177-C; Brandon Union Group
Angelo Burigana was born in the town of Vigonovo, less than an hour East of Venice. His parents owned a large farm where they raised six children. Angelo moved to Rome in his twenties, where he found a job as an office worker for an insurance company. While there he studied classical singing hoping to become an opera singer. In the late 1940s, he contemplated a career in Rome’s thriving cinema industry and made an audition for a role in a film. For reasons unknown, Angelo decided instead to immigrate to Canada in 1947-8, where one of his brothers had settled and sponsored him. His wife Luisa and his two children, Adrianna and John, joined him in 1949.
Angelo’s first job was as a waiter at an Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto called Old Angelo’s. It is not know how or when he became a plasterer and later a subcontractor in the residential sector in the 1950s. But it was during this time that he became friends with Mike Zanini, Bruno Zanini’s brother, who was a bricklayer. Such was their friendship that Mike helped pay the down payment for the Buriganas’ first house on Perth Avenue and Dupont Street. The house became an important source of income for the Buriganas when they started taking in boarders, about ten at a time, many of them construction workers. It also became a place of social gathering for Angelo’s friends, including Bruno Zanini, the pair occasionally breaking into song accompanied by Adrianna on the piano.
In 1957, Angelo joined Charles Irvine, Bruno Zanini, and Tony Mariano in their efforts to organize 800 residential plasterers and cement finishers into the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association Local 177 and Local 117-C. Angelo then became a business agent for the locals. In September of that year, they led a six-day illegal strike, during which “flying squads” transported picketers from site to site, where they often caused havoc by destroying machinery and walls with bats, bricks, and buckets of lime. In less than a week, they secured the first collective agreement in Metro Toronto’s residential construction sector, which included a forty-hour week, welfare benefits, and an hourly wage increase from $1.75 to $2.68. Their swift success raised eyebrows across the industry, especially among the other residential trades, where workers and organizers were inspired to follow the plasterers’ example. However, the Plasterers’ victory was short lived, as contractors soon started defaulting on their collective agreements. In response, in 1958, Irvine successfully petitioned the Ontario government to apply the Industrial Standards Act for all plasterers across the province, who saw their work hours and wages improve to match those achieved by Local 117. For more see Bruno Zanini’s and Charles Irvine’s bios.
In August 1959, Angelo sponsored his nephew John Stefanini’s immigration application and found him a job as a hod carrier (plasterer helper) in an apartment building project in the northwest of Toronto.
THE BRANDON UNION GROUP’S STRIKE OF 1960
By 1960, Irvine and Zanini saw an opportunity to form an alliance of residential construction locals, whose memberships and leadership were predominantly Italian, that could rival the British-dominated and largely unwelcoming ICI and heavy civil unions of the Toronto Building Trades Council. The tragic death of five Italian immigrants working in a watermain tunnel in an area know as Hoggs Hollow on March 17, 1960, was the catalyst for this movement. The tragic accident was covered extensively in Toronto’s press, which began paying greater attention to the exploitation encountered by immigrant construction workers in the residential sector. This was especially the case with the Toronto Telegram, where the young labour reporter Frank Drea wrote a series of stories on the difficult lives and working conditions of Italian construction workers, for which he won the Heywood Broun Award for social justice journalism. The Hoggs Hollow tragedy shocked the city and angered the Italian community, which was now ready to fight for their labour rights and their dignity more than ever. Two weeks after that incident, on April 1, the Scottish-Italian duo organized the first meeting of their rogue collective, which included the Bricklayers’ Local 40 (led by Zanini and Marino Toppan), the Plasterers’ Local 117 and Local 117-C , the Laborers’ Local 811 (led by Zanini and, Nick Gileno, George Petta, and Kerry Tipple), and the Carpenters’ Local 1190 (led by Frank Colantonio). They called themselves the Brandon Union Group after their meeting hall on 33 Brandon Avenue.
Already motivated by their own personal experiences, the Hoggs Hollow tragedy, and the media’s vindication, the hundreds of predominantly Italian workers in the crowd would be further energized by their charismatic leaders. An aspiring opera singer, Zanini captured the audience with his dramatic gestures and lyrical training, which more than made-up for his broken Friuli dialect mixed with English. Irvine, in turn, excited the crowd with his thundering speeches and aggressive calls to action, which he underlined by waving his Irish shillelagh in the air. One after another, these labour organizers prepared the men for action, who shouted back: “Sciopero! Sciopero!” (Strike! Strike!). On the morning after their third meeting, on August 1, 1,000 workers gathered at the Lansdowne Theatre and organized themselves into “flying squads.” In their cars and on the backs of pick-up trucks they traveled in large motorcades across residential construction sites in Toronto’s sprawling suburbs. At each site they tried to stop the work, sometimes talking the workers into leaving, other times removing them by force. In some places, the strikers tore down walls, emptied cement bags, threw bricks and stones at fresh concrete, or at those workers who refused to walk out.
Nearly all fifty-two high-rise apartment building projects in the city were stopped by this strike, which caused an estimated $50-million in losses. The pressure on cash-strapped and debt-ridden developers was enormous, but even more so on the (sub)contractors, many of whom were on the brink of bankruptcy. The first collective agreement was signed on August 10 between the Bricklayers’ Local 40 and the Masonry Contractors Association, followed by the Carpenters’ Local 1190 and the Labourers’ Local 811. The Plasterers’ participation in the strike was in solidarity, since they had already signed a collective agreement. By the time the strike ended, on August 17, hundreds of small and mid-sized (sub)contractors had agreed to significant wage increases, a forty-hour work week (45 for labourers), four per cent vacation pay, safety provisions for the transportation of workers in trucks, and union recognition. The Brandon Group unions also signed thousands of new members from among the 6,000 workers that participated in the strike. On August 20, they held a victory rally at the Lansdowne Theatre attended by 3,500 workers. The following week, about 7,500 residential construction workers marched for the first time in Toronto’s Labour Day parade, thus confirming their newfound respect from the labour establishment.
THE BRANDON UNION GROUP’S STRIKE OF 1961
Although sweet, the Brandon Union Group’s landmark victory was short-lived. Those contractors who had signed collective agreements soon found themselves excluded from the residential high rise projects, as apartment developers hired the many non-unionized construction companies still available. Facing bankruptcy, many of the small contractors broke their contracts with the Brandon unions and went back to their exploitative ways, which their unemployed unionized workers begrudgingly accepted. By the spring of 1961, union officials calculated that their members were owed $500,000 in wages. The only way to confirm their previous gains, Irvine and Zanini decided, was to launch another even larger illegal strike.
On the morning of May 29, 1961, the Scottish-Italian duo led a rally at Brandon Hall attended by over 4,300 workers, most of whom had to stand on the parking lot and listen to the speeches blasted through speakers. After the meeting ended, about 200 “flying squads” roamed metropolitan Toronto carrying over 2,000 strikers bent on closing down every apartment construction project in the region. So began the Brandon Union Group’s second illegal strike. This time around, the residential union alliance counted with the support of sixty labour leaders from the Toronto Building Trades Council, including the Labourers’ International Union of North America Local 183’s Gerry Gallagher. Their involvement turned this into a near-general strike, with work stoppages in the building of the subway, the Malton Airport extension, the Gardiner Expressway, the sewer system, and other industrial and commercial projects. The unions’ international offices also contributed funds to the strike committee, including donations received from Italian-American union members across the United States. The tactics used during this strike were similar to the previous year, yet more violent, leading to numerous confrontations between strikers, contractors, and non-unionized workers, involving bricks, stones, pieces of wood, and even an axe being used as projectiles. The bloody results of these battles were reported on the front pages of Toronto’s dailies. As a result, public opinion, which had been unequivocally on the side of these immigrant workers the year before, was now more ambivalent about their demands and tactics.
This time, developers, organized as the Toronto Builders Exchange, were prepared to face the unions’ offensive by providing financial support to any member company that resisted the workers’ demands. The Metropolitan Home Builders Association also counted with the support of the Ontario Minister of Labour Charles Daley, who, on June 2, stated his willingness to force the illegal strikers back to work should the builders request it. By this point, the strike had reportedly stopped the building of 20,000 housing units. Intimidated by the unions’ show of strength, the Builders Association, led by H. P. Hyatt, asked the federal Minister of Immigration Ellen Fairclough, on June 7, to deport those Italian immigrants who engaged in violence on the picket lines. The minister rejected this suggestion. But the ever-present fear of deportation among newcomers grew as a result. Ultimately, Hyatt’s strategy backfired, as more members of the public began to criticize the builders for their threats.
The police apparatus was also greater this time, resulting in nearly 200 arrests; many under dubious charges. On June 20 alone, 41 strikers were arrested on a housing subdivision project on Neilson Avenue, in Etobicoke, including Angelo. He and the other men would be released the following day after the unions bailed them. The most significant arrest made was of Angelo’s nephew, Stefanini, then a business agent with Local 183, who was sentenced to six months in jail on trespassing charges. For more see John Stefanini’s bio. The seemingly arbitrary arrest and harsh sentence drew criticism from prominent labour leaders, like the Canadian Labour Congress’ David Archer and the soon-to-be leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) Donald MacDonald.
Besides intimidating strikers, these mass arrests also placed a heavy financial burden on the unions’ treasuries, which had to pay for their members’ hefty bails. On June 9, prompted by the strike’s quick and widespread escalation, Premier Leslie Frost offered the unions a “peace plan” that included: the creation of a temporary arbitration board; the appointment of more government inspectors to investigate labour standards violations; and the appointment of a royal commission inquiry. Despite having agreed to end the strike in a private meeting with Frost, Irvine did not follow through and the strike continued. On June 22, Irvine and Zanini suspended the “flying squads” and told the strikers to “keep your hands in your pockets” so to avoid further violence and bad publicity. Four days later, the Brandon Union Group and the Toronto Building Trades Council shut down every construction project in the city for twenty-four hours and held a solidarity rally at the CNE Grandstand, attended by more than 17,000 workers and a list of prominent labour leaders. The Toronto Telegram labour reporter Frank Drea called it “the greatest rank and file rally in the history of the Canadian labor movement.” The following day, June 27, Frost appointed the labour lawyer H. Carl Goldenberg to lead the Royal commission on Labour-Management Relations in the Construction Industry.
The strike dragged on for another three weeks, seriously straining the strikers’ livelihood and weakening their resolve. It was then that the many private contributions made by the strikers’ wives became most apparent. Besides their traditional contributions as homemakers, wage-earning women became the “breadwinners” during the length of this strike, some taking waged work in Canada for the first time. According to Irvine, one of the reasons holding up a settlement with the employers were the amount of money they owed for past grievances. Many commercial workers began breaking rank and voted to return to work, against the wishes of its union leaders. This weakened the industry-wide threat of a general strike, which the Toronto Building Trades Council tried to salvage by running sympathy strikes in various sectors. In response, contractors filed court injunctions against the leaders of these illegal work stoppages, especially Gallagher’s Local 183. Meanwhile, in an effort to re-gain the upper hand, Irvine and Harold Weller, of the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers union, travelled to Miami to meet with Jimmy Hoffa, the infamous leader of the International Teamsters’. On July 6, the Scotsman convinced Hoffa to order Toronto’s Local 230, which represented cement-truck drivers, to not cross the picket lines.
Then suddenly, on July 15, Irvine and Zanini announced the end of the strike. This came as a surprise to the workers, who were not consulted on this decision, as the democratic principles of labour unionism demanded. Gathered in a “victory rally” at the Lansdowne Theatre the next day, the workers initially reacted to the news with ambivalence. Their gains since Frost’s initial offer were not clear, especially when considering the sacrifices that their families had made. After the initial hesitation, the 2,500 workers in the theatre finally erupted in cheers and carried Zanini and Irvine on their shoulders. After all, one-third of residential construction contractors had signed collective agreements, with the labourers winning a $2 increase in hourly wage and the bricklayers $3.05. Italians, in particular, had also developed greater collective consciousness, political leverage, and civic pride, along with increased respect from their fellow Torontonians. The strike also confirmed the permanence of the new residential construction locals and introduced a new cast of immigrant union leaders of proven skill and influence. Still, the division of the construction labour movement into different trades and sectors, leading to discrepancies in wages, benefits, safety standards, and work hours, would generate rivalries, jurisdictional battles, and incentivize raiding across unions. The absence of a single big union that could bargain for equal standards across the industry would continue to limit their leverage and scope.
For more on the Brandon Union Group strikes’ see the second episode of our documentary.
LEAVING THE LABOUR MOVEMENT
[This section is under construction]
After Angelo left the labour movement, he went into retirement and enjoyed the rest of his life as a grandfather, singing in a choir, and spending his vacations in Florida with his wife Luisa. He passed away on April 28, 1998 from lung cancer.