Colantonio, Frank

AO Irvine Colantonio 1Birth and death: 1923-1997
Place of birth: Montorio, Molise, Italy
Arrival in Canada: 1949
Affiliations: United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America’s Local 1190; Canadian Carpenters’ Association; Brandon Union Group


Frank Colantonio was born on June 8, 1923, on the small village of Montorio, Molise region, Italy. His parents, Giovanni and Angelina, were wheat farmers who owned a few hectares of land. The year before Frank was born they decided to rent another plot of land in order to supplement their income. But a hail storm that summer destroyed their crop and the family was left with nothing but debt. Faced with this reality, Giovanni decided to emigrate to the United States, where he would make enough money to pay off his debt and amass savings working at a factory in Youngstown, Ohio. Angelina stayed in Montorio, where she soon gave birth to Frank. The boy would never get to meet his father, who was killed by a train when crossing a railroad bridge on his way home from work in Ohio before Frank’s first birthday. Widowed at 27, Angelina would raise Frank and his sister by herself, getting by with the money she made on the farm. Here, Frank learned to appreciate hard work, the seasonality of farm work, and to respect the day-labourers that his mother hired to do heavy work around the farm. The fact she owned land gave Angelina some economic security during the difficult years of Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. Still, her relative affluence was not enough to support her two children’s education past grade five. At age 12, she sent Frank to apprentice with the family’s hired goat herder, where he made $10 lire a month. A year later, he was making $50 lire tending to ten goats in Montario’s hilly country. The money that Frank made reverted back to his mother, who used it to hire additional help in the farm. By the time he turned 15, Frank left his goats and replaced his mother’s day-labourers, dreaming of having a farm of his own one day.

In 1943, Colantonio was conscripted for the Italian army and assigned to an infantry company in the city of Arezzo, Tuscany. He would soon rise to the rank of corporal and was placed in charge of training recruits in Sardinia, where he and his men nearly got killed by British bombers shortly after arriving. Corporal-Major Colantonio would later command a platoon of older Toscani men, many of them craftsmen, professionals, businessmen, clerical workers, and industrialists with significant formal education, with whom the young Molisano learn a great about Italian language, culture, and politics. Some months after the Allied forces took Sicily, in August 1943, Colantonio was placed with one of the labour gangs attached to the U.S. Fifth Army, whose job was to rebuild bridges and railroads blown away by the retreating Germans. After that he was sent to Calabria’s mountains to work on logging for the reconstruction effort, all the while fighting malaria that he had contracted in Sardinia. By the time the war ended, in April 1945, Colantonio had managed to avoid the fighting. He returned to his hometown and his mother soon after this.

Back at the farm, things look dim. The previous year’s crop had been effectively confiscated by the government; the price of grain had dropped; the labourers’ wages increased; and his family’s field was left unploughed. The only way for the Colantonios to generate more income was by selling their grain in the black market in the Spring, when prices were higher. Still, that did not leave enough savings for Frank and his sister to start their independent lives and improve their chances at finding a socially “desirable” spouse within their village’s rigidly structured marriage market. As so many other Italian bachelors before and since, Frank decided to try his luck in Canada, hoping to make enough money to support his mother and sister, and start his own family.


On August 6, 1949, Colantonio departed for Canada aboard the Saturnia as a “bulk order” migrant worker with a one-year contract with a vegetable farmer in Etobicoke, on Royal York Road and Darlingbrook Crescent. After arriving on Pier 21 in Halifax, Colantonio took the train to Toronto where his uncle was expecting him. Joe Colantonio, a barber shop owner who had his own building in Little Malta, in the Junction neighbourhood, where lived with his family, had arranged for his nephew’s contract with farmer Joe Sant, his Maltese neighbour. The now 26-year old began his first job in Canada the next day, picking tomatoes at Sant’s farm.

One week after arriving, Colantonio decided to take English language classes at night, which allowed him to better navigate and explore Anglo-Canadian society. By November his work at the farm was over for the winter season and Colantonio was forced to find other employment until the Spring. Through a paesano he found a job as a “pick and shovel” labourer digging ditches for watermain projects, working under an Italian contractor. This was his first waged work, where he was paid a meager $0.90 per hour. That job lasted only a few weeks before the ground froze in December. After this he worked for a few months washing dishes, and later as a labourer with D’Ambrosio Marble & Terrazo Co., building the new Hospital for Sick Children. Colantonio was put to work grinding the vertical and curved parts of baseboards, which required him to work in uncomfortable crouched positions. Come Spring, Colantonio returned to Sant’s farm to fulfill the rest of his contract, which ended in August. He then fond work cutting sheet metal at an air conditioning manufacturer, where he was treated with respect and given the opportunity of sponsoring a relative and a friend from Italy to move to Canada. As Colantonio later recalled, there were no shortage of jobs in Toronto for newcomers at this time:

Things were in a state of frenzied expansion. Workplaces were scattered across the city like handfuls of beads tossed onto the map. There seemed to be work for anyone who wanted to do it. And the Italians just kept on coming. [1]

In April 1951, work at the Toronto Air Conditioning company dropped and Colantonio was laid off. He went back to residential construction where lots of jobs were available to Italian immigrants, including the many newcomers arriving in that period. Colantonio decided to try carpentry and started as a helper with a couple of non-unionized small contractors doing house framing and working with a power saw. When the two men he had sponsored arrived the next year, his former boss, George Mackay, hired them for his air conditioning company and offered Colantonio had a job installing ducts in new houses, at $1.50 per hour; a job that required some carpentry experience and the ability to read plans. A few weeks later, Colantonio obtained his driver’s license, with Mackay’s assistance, and was assigned a work pick-up truck and a helper, the paesano that he had sponsored. A year passed and Colantonio decided to quit the company after he was asked to work with an Anglo-Canadian colleague who had previously made a derogatory remark about Italians.

Contractors_sub-contractors_ownersSoon after, two fellow immigrants from Montorio asked Colantonio to join them in looking for house carpentry jobs. They found piece work with a contractor who agreed to pay them $1 for every door they installed and additional for baseboards. By dividing workers along individual tasks, this piece-work system benefited sub-contractors, since it allowed them to produce more while paying lower wages. This gave Colantonio the opportunity to develop his carpentry skills, which he supplemented by taking night classes in his new trade.

At the end of 1954, after working for five years without a vacation, Colantonio decided to take time off and went to visit his family in Italy. While there, he sought out a woman with whom to marry. After a disappoint courtship exercise, he eventually heard from his sister-in-law about his bride-to-be, Nella Sabusco. Once Frank arrived in Toronto, he asked Nella to marry him by proxy and join him in Canada, which she accepted. The couple married on May 7, 1956, with the bride and groom in separate continents.

After his return to Toronto, Colantonio decided to purse a unionized carpentry job where the wage rates were higher. In this period, industrial and commercial construction union locals were reluctant to accept Italian workers, claiming that jobs were scarce in those sectors. A more significant reason were the discriminatory views held by Anglo-Canadian tradesmen, to whom Italian immigration was a threat to their union’s hard-earned gains, since these newcomers were believed to be unskilled, docile, and willing to work for the lowest wages. Indeed, there was a dramatic depreciation of skills and wages in Toronto’s residential construction workforce after the Second World War. With the return of war veterans and the large number of immigrants arriving into the city, demand for housing grew tremendously. While a developer might have built a dozen houses a year before the war, after it a builder produced them in the hundreds.[2] This pushed carpenters and other construction tradesmen to work faster and with less quality than before, leading to the deskilling of the industry and greater opportunities for unskilled workers to enter the field.

For these reasons, when Colantonio asked to join the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America’s Local 1963, whose membership was predominantly Slavic, he was told by the business manager Jack Greeley that they already had too many members for the available jobs. Instead, they suggested that he join their recently chartered residential Local 1190, which at that point had no collective agreements. Despite the few returns, Colantonio agreed to pay the steep signing fee and monthly dues in the hope learning more about unions. At that point, Local 1190 was led by a Dutch immigrant, and its membership was made up entirely of European immigrants from the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. Soon after signing, Greeley nominated Colantonio for the position of vice-president of Local 1190, since he spoke English and Italian; the latter quickly becoming the largest linguistic group in the new organization. He was elected by acclamation.

Colantonio continued to work in various house building jobs in Toronto’s suburbs. The wide availability of work, plus his own improved skills, allowed him to quit one job if he was not relatively satisfied and start another rather quickly. This was facilitated by the fact that he now owned his own truck and was able to drive around looking for work. Nonetheless, no matter how hard or well he worked, Colantonio was unable to find employers who would pay him more than $1.25-$1.50 per hour, which was the rate that newcomers with little experience were making; except for one job where he made $2 building a house from start to finish.


In 1956, the day after he quit a job where a contractor had underpaid him, Colantonio was called into the Carpenters Hall, on 169 Gerrard Street East. There he met with Greeley, the District Council’s business manager Alfred Ward, and the executive board member Andy Cooper, who offered him a job as business agent of Local 1190. He accepted this better paid job with hesitation, since he knew little about unions. Colantonio was placed under the wing of Ukrainian Bill Garden, Local 1963’s veteran secretary-treasurer who had no experience of residential building. The two men began visiting residential construction sites in the suburbs, with Colantonio behind the wheel. Initially, the Italian found the organizing job fairly easy, aided by the many grievances held by the residential workers that he spoke to. As he put it: “The men who really ran the show – the big builders – were never actually around… The contractors often worked shoulder-to-shoulder with their employees.” [3] Some of the contractors took the opportunity to vent about fly-by-night contractors and other aspects of the industry that made it difficult to pay decent wages, and welcomed the organizers into their job sites, hoping that unionization would end the industry’s lawlessness. Of course, there was not the case everywhere. Some sub-contractors were hostile and not all workers were sympathetic towards unions. Colantonio found that different migrant groups tended to have different views towards unionization. In his words: “The Germans wanted to see the trade unionized but were reluctant to participate actively in the union… The Dutch workers we met were mostly members of Christian sects that frowned on unions. Carpenters from northern Europe were sympathetic to the union but doubted our ability to do anything concrete for them… Eastern Europeans, by contrast, were frequently suspicious, even hostile.” [4]

International-OLRB-Flying SquadsShortly after Colantonio became an organizer, the president of the Carpenters Local 1190 resigned and he replaced him. Anxious about the fact that he now had to address the members in English and Italian at union meetings, the Molisano took private lessons in both languages from a Sicilian tutor, Lucia Buccheri (Turney). Colantonio also took the time to learn about union management practices, politics, and labour law during the slow construction season by attending the meetings of other Carpenter locals. He also learned that the Bricklayers’, Masons’ and Plasterers’ International Union were taking similar steps to unionized Italian workers in the residential sector, and had recruited the Italian-Canadian Bruno Zanini to lead that drive. Bricklayers and carpenters worked side-by-side in house building and had many similar grievances; they were also increasingly Italian. Another co-dependent trade in the residential sector were plasterers. In 1957, Colantonio learn about another soon-to-be major player in the residential sector, the Vice-President for Canada of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association, Charles Irvine. That year, Irvine and Zanini partnered and organized about 800 residential plasterers and cement finishers as the Plasterers Local 117 and Local 117-C respectively. Colantonio saw in their activism the answer to the general inaction that he found within his own Carpenters’ union towards the residential sector. He was further impressed by the fact that such a large group of workers answered Irvine’s call to strike. In this illegal strike of September 1957, Irvine’s trademark aggressive methods were on full display. “Flying squads” traveled from site to site causing havoc in targeted construction projects, destroying machinery and walls with bats, bricks, and buckets of lime. After five days, they secured a contract, the first in Metro Toronto’s residential sector, which included a forty-hour work week, welfare benefits, and a wage increase from $1.75 to $2.68 per hour.


Inspired by the Plasterers’ success, Colantonio and Garden convinced the Carpenters’ executive that the time was right to call an illegal strike in the residential sector, which they agreed. That same month, Local 1190 held a series of packed strike meetings at the Carpenters Hall on Gerrard Street and the Croatian Recreation Hall on Dupont Street, where they listened to rousing speeches in English, Slavic, and especially Italian. Among the speakers was Zanini, whose “‘Canadian status’,” Colantonio later wrote, “was seen as a big plus, because many of us felt handicapped by our immigrant backgrounds, unsure of our ability to speak English and deal confidently with people in power.” [5] The fact that nearly all the workers on strike were Italian was both a point of pride and concern for Colantonio, and for his co-ethnic contractors, who worried that the strike might ultimately push Italians out of the jobs and be replaced by other migrant groups. Ultimately, the biggest hurdle to signing a collective agreement with the army of small contractors and sub-contractors, most of them Italians, was the Carpenters’ own bargaining tactics. According to Colantonio, negotiations between the union and the employers broke down due to Alfred Ward’s (the Carpenters’s chief negotiator) aggressive demands and lack of understanding about the residential sector. The main issue of contention was the ratio of carpenters-to-improvers (labourers) on any given job site. It had been customary in housing building to have one skilled carpenter for every four “improvers”. Ward demanded that the ratio be inverted, which the contractors argued was impossible given the high labour costs. Because of this disagreement, the strikers went home with nothing after striking for two weeks. Later, Colantonio speculated that the main goal of the Carpenters’ executive had never been to improve the wages and benefits of Local 1190 members but to push out those workers who they did not believe to be bona fide carpenters. Among the members, however, the belief was that the strike had failed because the other ethnic groups had not join the Italians. Colantonio repeated this sentiment within the Carpenters’ official circle, which cost him Garden’s friendship and earned him an enemy in Arlington Brown, a well-respected business agent of Local 27. Brown’s animosity towards Colantonio escalated until the two nearly got into an altercation at the Carpenters’ Hall. Following this incident, the Italian organizer approached Ward to tender his resignation, but the Carpenters’ boss convinced him to stay and promised to provide Colantonio with two Canadian-born organizers as he had previously requested. Assisted by the Ukrainian-Canadian Ted Moran and the former preacher from Newfoundland Edgar Flight, Colantonio continued his organizing duties and left the reporting and discussing at the District Council meetings to his two new partners, who had come to agree with his assessment of what had happened with the failed strike. The rookie trade unionist now had two “Canadian” allies to back him. However, that arrangement was short lived, as Moran and Flight were fired from the union due to financial struggles, just as they were preparing to launch a large organizing campaign in the summer of 1959.

The Carpenters’ financial woes also led Ward to instruct Colantonio to apply for certification with a large contractor, Imperial Carpentry; a company owned by several partners, including Consolidated Building Corporation (later Cadillac Fairview). But as soon as the company was certified, the owners dissolved it and re-opened it under a different name, thus preventing its unionization. This experienced convinced Colantonio that the traditional route of certifying individual contractors at a time was ineffective and ultimately harmed the workers who were laid off at the first sight of unionization. As he later put it: “I was convinced there was only one way to organize the sector – Charlie Irvine’s way.” [6] This, however, was not an option under the Carpenters’ direction, which continued to neglect the residential sector and the Italian workers that Colantonio had organized. For that reason, he quit in the Spring of 1959.


After this decision, Colantonio found a job at a food wholesale company, where he worked four days a week. He dedicated his spare time to creating his independent Canadian Carpenters’ Association union, to which he was able to sign about two hundred members, all of them Italian immigrants. Sometime later, Colantonio’s English tutor, who was an administrator in the Italian Immigrant Aid Society, offered him a job in that organization as a social worker. In his new role, Colantonio helped immigrants find jobs, temporary lodging, filling Workmen’s Compensation Board forms, and accessing important resources necessary to their integration in Canada. During this time, he learned about the various struggles of his fellow countrymen, whose difficult lives were compounded by the fact that Canada was going through tough economic times and high rates of unemployment in the mid- to late 1950s.




[1] Frank Colantonio. From the Ground Up. An Italian Immigrant’s Story. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1997: 37.
[2] Edward E. Seymour. “The Carpenters’ Union in Canada. Looking Back With Pride – Looking Forward With Vision.” 2017. p. 30
[3] Colantonio, From the Ground Up, p. 58.
[3] Ibid, 59.
[4] Ibid, 70.
[5] Ibid, 82.