Gallagher, Gerry

Gallagher bioBirth and death: July 14, 1914 – September 2, 1978
Place of birth: Athlone, Co. Westmeath, Republic of Ireland
Arrival in Canada: March, 1951
Affiliations: Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 183


Gerald (Gerry) Gallagher was born on July 24, 1914, in the town of Athlone, Westmeath County, Republic of Ireland. His mother, Elizabeth, had left for the U.S. to become a nun, but realized that she had no vocation when his father, Edward, travelled across the Atlantic after her heart. From their union came thirteen children, of which Gerry was the last. Listen to Gallagher tell his parents’ love story. [1]

He grew up in St. Kieran’s Terrace, a working class neighbourhood on the eastern bank of the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland. Although he lived through the Irish War of Independence as a young boy, and despite his family’s humble means, Gallagher remembered having been raised with “a beautiful feeling of freedom” and without “a care in the world.” His childhood memories included playing Gaelic football for his hometown’s team; being a sprinter in regional competitions; fishing on the Shannon; chasing girls; and goofing around with his friends. Gerry attributed his relative freedom from want to his brothers, who sent money home from the United States where they had immigrated to, allowing him to stay in school longer than his siblings. It was during his time in vocational school that he had his first experience with organizing a protest. When Gerry was twelve years old, he stood up to a “fanatic” teacher who berated him and his colleagues for dancing the “immoral” and “disgusting” old time waltz at a school dance. The teacher was enraged by the boy’s defiance and began shouting at him, bringing the dance to an abrupt and teary-eyed ending. The next Monday, Gerry rallied a group of boys from neighbouring towns at a strategic crossroads, where they held picket signs demanding an apology from the priest. This made it to the local newspapers, which greatly displeased Gerry’s father. “I can still feel the couple of belts I got,” he later recalled.

Listen to Gallagher tell the story of his first picket.


Wooden plaque made by a German prisoner of war as a gift to Gerry Gallagher. Hutchinson Internment Camp, Douglas, Isle of Man. May 17, 1945. Courtesy of the Gallagher family.

When he turned eighteen, Gallagher joined the Irish Volunteer Force, a military organization founded by Irish nationalists in 1913. As he put it: “there was nothing else to do, there was no work.” [2] Then in 1937, he moved to England to look for employment. Sometime during this period of his life he married his first wife. When the Second World War started, Gallagher joined the British Expeditionary Force’s Royal Engineers and went to fight in continental Europe. His chief motivation, he later admitted, was to get away from his first wife, with whom he had a poor relationship. Despite the fact that he was an Irish nationalist in the English army, Gallagher was made a sergeant in short time. During the Battle of Dunkirk and the subsequent evacuation of the British army from northern France, in 1940, his unit was guarding a fuel depot for tanks and airplanes, in an isolated part of the country. Without long wave radios, they were unaware of the fall of Dunkirk and were left behind, “presumed dead.” Only when they saw the Luftwaffe’s airplanes flying overhead and heard German voices on their short wave radios did they realize that they were surrounded by the enemy. Gallagher’s commanding officers decided at that point to abandon their position and destroy the fuel so not to fall on Nazi hands, then travelled to a port town on southwestern France, from where they escaped aboard a cattle ship. After this, Gallagher served as a guard in the Hutchinson Internment Camp, in Douglas, Isle of Man. Here he would be criticized for being “too kind” to the captured German soldiers, to whom he brought cigarettes and even taught how to sing “You Are My Sunshine.”

Olivia Flowers Gallagher


It was during this period that Gallagher met his second wife, Olive Flowers, who served as a balloon operator in the Women’s Auxiliary Royal Air Force. After the two were demobilized, they decided to settle in London, England. Gerry looked for a job as a truck driver, a skill that he had learned in the army, but eventually found work delivering coal; a difficult job for a 5′ 8″ man. Four years later, in 1950, both of Gerry’s parents died. First his mother, whom he buried in Athlone; then his father, seven weeks later, after Gerry had returned to England. Listen to Gallagher talk about his parents’ passing. After requesting another leave from his employer to attend his father’s funeral, Gerry got into a fistfight with a young English superintendent at the coal yard where he worked, who had joked about the many deaths in an Irish Catholic family. The young Irishman was fired, until his union representative convinced him to appeal his dismissal. Gallagher did so and won, then he quit the job. The following year, the Gallaghers, who now had two daughters, Deirdre and Sheila, decided to leave England and look for “greener fields.” They were ready to depart for Australia but Olive changed her mind at the last minute, on account of how far she would from her mother in England and her sister in Windsor, Canada. One day while driving, Gerry heard on the radio that the Ontario Hydro Commission was recruiting workers to go to Burlington, Ontario, and were paying for the ship’s fare. They took the opportunity and decided to move to Canada, in part because they would be closer to Gerry’s brothers, who lived in the Greater New York City. Gerry migrated first, from Southampton, aboard the ship Scythia, leaving behind his wife and daughters. He arrived in Montreal in March 1951, from where he was sent to Burlington. There he would work as a labourer, with a pick and shovel, digging the footings for the tall hydro towers. At night he painted houses so to make enough money to pay for his family’s ship fare. About a month later, Olive and the children joined him. Their first home was a cheap rental cabin on a Lake Ontario beach, on Hamilton Bay, where the Gallaghers were warmly welcomed by their neighbours and the lake’s summer beauty.


Accustomed to the heavy piecework of his previous coal-delivery job, Gallagher took well to the new work and was quickly promoted to foreman. Around this time, he learned that hydro labourers in nearby Niagara Falls were making $0.50 more an hour than those in Burlington, because they were unionized. This prompted Gallagher to unionize his workplace. He was aided by the fact that he had a “captive audience,” given that the roughly 500 Hydro workers lived in a work camp, where there was little distraction come night time. Still, Gallagher’s co-workers, most of whom were war refugees (or “Displaced Persons”) from Eastern Europe, were reluctant to join a union in labour-hostile Canada, fearing they would not be allowed to stay in the country once their one-year contracts expired. Gallagher pressed on, taking advantage of his position as foreman to meet with a large number of labourers in the Hamilton area. Despite having little experience with unions or knowledge of Canadian labour laws, he was able to secure verbal commitments from nearly all of the workers after nine months of campaigning. As Gallagher later described: “I was blundering in where angels fear to tread. But this is the lucky things that happen to me.” [3]

Gallagher then began looking for a union to take in his men. Initially he looked for a Canadian union but was surprised to find that all construction unions in Canada were affiliated with American-based international unions. So he asked a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 793, working on the Burlington Hydro site, to connect him with a officer of the International Hod Carriers’, Building and Common Laborers’ Union of North America (later the Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LIUNA). Gallagher then asked a superintendent if he could use the company’s cafeteria to hold the union vote, to which the man surprisingly agreed. At this meeting, the union official sent by the Laborers’, “an Englishman,” gave a speech in which he referred to “DPs” (a pejorative shorthand for “Displaced Persons”) in a disagreeable way, which upset the refugees in the crowd. Upon reading the room’s growing restlessness, Gallagher interrupted the speaker and called the vote on whether or not they should unionized. After initial hesitation, the workers voted overwhelmingly in favour of unionizing as the Laborers’ Local 183. After this, Gallagher began negotiating his first collective agreement with Ontario Hydro. During a round of negotiations, Robert Saunders, the former Mayor of Toronto and now chairman of Ontario Hydro, suggested to Gallagher that he should ask for province-wide jurisdiction, instead of just the Hamilton area, since the work required of the company’s labourers was mobile. Although suspicious of Saunders’ generosity, the rookie organizer accepted this suggestion and his new union came to represent over 2,500 hydro workers across Ontario. Ontario. Gallagher later found out that by dealing with him, Ontario Hydro prevented the more radical District 50 of the United Mine Workers of America, an industrial union led by the Congress of Industrial Oraganization’s founder John L. Lewis, from organizing its workers. Lucky for the Irishman, they saw in him as an easier opponent. The agreement was signed on August 25, 1952. Listen to Gallagher tell the story of how he founded Local 183.

According to the future business manager of Local 183, John Stefanini, Gallagher told him that it was Ontario Hydro who first approached the Construction Building Trades Department of the American Federation of Labour and invited its Washington-based international craft unions to organize their workers. The intention was to prevent more radical industrial unions from doing so. [4]

Over the next few years, Gallagher travelled across the province signing up utility workers employed in the installation or power and telecommunication cables, some of whom lived in remote work camps in Ontario’s northern hinterland. About his travels, he later wrote:

Mike and Gerry Gallagher 3The thing I find most fascinating about Ontario is the people, the greatest asset of all. My job takes me to remote places in the north. I spend my nights talking to bush pilots and Indians at the Hydro camps, drinking beer and listening to their tales. I also like sitting in the pubs in Cochrane and Kapuskasing, talking to the French Canadians. We talk about the weather, I buy them a drink and then we get into their stories. If you go to Atikokan, you can hobnob with the miners in an atmosphere that’s just like an old-time Hollywood movie set. [5]


When Ontario Hydro set out to build the Lakeshore Generating Station in Mississauga in 1958, the long-established Laborers’ Local 506, which represented construction labourers in Toronto’s heavy and institutional, commercial, and industrial (ICI) sectors, claimed jurisdiction over that project. Gallagher relinquished jurisdiction over that Ontario Hydro project in exchange for the Bloor-Danforth-university subway lines, whose construction was to begin on November 1959. The international then transferred jurisdiction over subway, sewer and watermain, and road building in metropolitan Toronto from Local 506 to Local 183. As for its utility workers, Local 183 retained jurisdiction over those who worked in hydro lines and stations in the Toronto area, which in 1959 amounted to 75 or its previous 2,500 members. [6]

With this new mission, the Gallaghers decided to move to the newly built town of Don Mills, so that Gerry could be closer to the workers. In subway building, the more lucrative of the sectors, the majority of the workers were Irish immigrants (especially in underground tunneling), with a significant minority of Maritime Canadians and Italians. In Gallagher’s words:

Sometimes in the subway it was like the Tower of Babel. There were Irishmen, Scotsman, Italians, Greeks and men from almost every country in Europe. And these sandhogs are a peculiar breed. They seem to hear by some grapevine where there’s a big hole being dug. And they wander in from somewhere and make a buck and wander off again. But they are great fellow and most of them are hard workers. They’re tough on top, but you could tell when somebody was killed and they threw in their money to help the widows and families, if there were any, they are pretty soft underneath. [7]

Tunnellers, who were commonly called “sandhogs” at the time, earned good wages compared to other labourers, which made it a much sought-after job. However, theirs was a dangerous job, where trench collapses, decompression sickness (or caisson disease or “the bends”) – nitrogen bubbles in the blood caused by sudden decompression – and other fatal hazards were generally accepted as part of the business. Working underground on the “shield” boring machine was harder than in the “open cut” or “cut-and-cover” building methods, where workers could see daylight, breathe fresh air, and were not under compressed air. Still, there were risks, such as falling concrete forms and cave ins.

Even more dangerous was the sewer and watermain sector, where Italian immigrants predominated. Here, working conditions were appalling and safety measures were routinely ignored, resulting in dozens of deaths, most of them from collapsed trenches that were not properly shored, but also from unsafe machine operation, and various other causes. The sewer and watermain tunnelling was harder than the better paid subway building, since it required workers to be hunched over most of the time in tiny spaces, working mostly by hand, and in compressed air. Upon discovering the harsh conditions experienced by tunnellers building Toronto’s sprawling underground infrastructure, Gallagher was compelled to improve health and safety standards for the men he organized. His resolve became urgent after the tragic death of five Italian tunnellers at Hoggs Hollow.

For more on subway building, and sewer and watermain see Seamus Walsh’s, Rocco Di Giovanni’s, and Mike Byrne’s oral history videos.


Telegram_Hoggs Hollow collage

On the evening of March 17, 1960, St. Patrick’s Day, a fire broke out in the main shaft of a watermain tunnel being built under the West Don River, in the area known as Hoggs Hollow. The fire had been caused by an overheated electric wire during the welding of one of the pipe sections. Six workers were able to escape through a shaft on York Mills Road, just east of Yonge Street, and another one, waiting in the compression chamber, fled through a second shaft just above the fire. Six other men were trapped inside, about 275 ft. away from the closest exit, on the wrong side of the fire. Two of the men who escaped tried to go back and rescue their colleagues, but the smoke from the burnt timber and rubber insulation had made the compressed air nearly impossible to breathe. The rescue team were left with an excruciating decision: to clear the smoke by decompressing the tunnel, thus condemning the men to “the bends” and possibly flooding the tunnel with silt and water, which might lead to its collapse; or let the fire run its course and hope for it to extinguish quickly? The firemen waited half an hour before pouring water through a hole on the side of the tunnel. Eventually, they decided to open the compression chamber hoping that the men had made their way there. Between them was the smoke, quicksand, knee-high water, and a 36-inch wide steel pipe, where in some sections of the tunnel left only 18 inches to crawl through, in total darkness and scorching heat.

Hoggs Hollow sketchs

The workers Valentini and Jack Corigliano volunteered to go into the tunnel and search for the men. But they soon had to be helped out of the shaft themselves and sent to the hospital for smoke inhalation and bleeding backs, from scrapping against the tunnel walls. Around 8 p.m., the rescuers were able to pull out a semi-conscious and delirious Walter Andruschuk. This 51-year old veteran miner, who had migrated from Belgium ten years prior, was the farthest from the exit. But he quickly realized that the only escape was through the muck and fire. As Andruschuk later described, he pleaded with the other men to follow him and even tried pulling one out, but they fought him back in panic and was forced to let go. His emergence from the “hell hole” lifted the spirits of the many family members and colleagues of the five Italian men still trapped inside, who had gathered around the shaft head. Their hopes were crushed after three rescuers, who managed to crawl 150 ft. into the narrow tunnel, returned empty-handed, except for the news that the 26-year old Pasquale Allegrezza lied dead across the steel pipe. The young immigrant, who had also been a miner in Belgium before moving to Canada, had the same fate as his four countrymen, Guido Mantella, 23, Alessandro Mantella, 25, Giovanni Fusillo, 27, and Giovanni Corriglio, 46, most of whom had recently arrived in Canada. Five hours later, after various attempts, the rescuers were able to pull out Allegrezza’s body. The other four were retrieved in the following days.

Listen to Gallagher’s thoughts on compressed air and the Hoggs Hollow tragedy. 

The shocking accident was covered extensively in the Toronto press, along with the unsafe working conditions faced by tunnellers and Italian construction workers in general. Following the Hoggs Hollow tragedy, the general public and their political representatives began paying greater attention to the exploitation of immigrant construction workers, especially Italians in the residential sector. This was in large part due to the work of the Toronto Telegram’s young labour reporter Frank Drea, who wrote a series of stories about the difficult lives of Italian construction workers, for which he would win the Heywood Broun Award for social justice journalism – according to Gallagher, Local 183 nominated him for this award [8]. Another significant outcome of this tragedy was that it pushed Toronto’s Italian community towards collective action and unionization, led by the charismatic founders of the Brandon Union Group.


AO Irvine 01
Gerry Gallagher at the microphone during Brandon Union Group strike meeting. Photographer unknown. 1961. Archives of Ontario, Charles Irvine fonds, C331-6.

If before there was a steady stream of Italian construction workers signing union cards, after the Hoggs Hollow tragedy that became a rush, which the established trade unions were forced to acknowledge. Moved by their own experiences with exploitation and poor working conditions, thousands of Italian immigrants, who made up the majority of the residential construction sector’s workforce, answered the call to unionize from the charismatic organizers Bruno Zanini and Charles Irvine. The dynamic Italian-Scottish duo had began organizing residential plasterers, cement masons, bricklayers, and labourers (bricklayer helpers) since 1957. Their unprecedented success in that previously non-unionized sector inspired Italian organizers in other construction trades, as was the case with Frank Colantonio and his United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America Local 1190. On April 1, 1960, they formed an alliance of residential construction unions called the Brandon Union Group. This rogue collective  included the Bricklayers, Masons and Plasterers International Union’s Local 40 (led by Marino Toppan, Mike Hammang, Dino Di Danieli, and Mario Della Mora); the Operative Plasterers and Cement Mason International Union Local 117 and Local 117-C (led by Irvine and Tony Mariano); the Laborers’ International Local 811 (led by Zanini, Nick Gileno, and George Petta); and the Carpenters Local 1190 (led by Colantonio). Their meetings at Brandon Hall and Lansdowne Theatre consistently drew thousands of predominantly Italian workers, who came to identify with each other’s struggles and frustrations, expressed loudly in packed, sweaty, smoke-filled rooms. On August 1, 1960, they launched a seventeen-day illegal strike that would produce some of the first collective agreements in Toronto’s residential sector. However, the Brandon Union Group’s first victory was short-lived. Those small and mid-sized (sub)contractors that had signed agreements with its unions soon found themselves out of work, as developers resorted to hiring the many non-unionized companies still available. Facing this reality, the unionized companies began defaulting on their agreements and returned to their exploitative ways, which unemployed unionized workers begrudgingly accepted. By the spring of 1961, Brandon Union officials calculated that their members were owed $500,000 in wages. In Irvine’s and Zanini’s estimation, the only way to confirm the gains made in the Summer of 1960 was to launch a larger strike across the entire residential sector.

On the morning of May 29, 1961, Irvine and Zanini 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 outside. 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. Thus began the Brandon Union Group’s second illegal strike. This time around, they counted on the support of sixty labour leaders from the British-dominated unions of the Toronto Building Trades Council, which represented all international construction union locals in that metropolitan area, comprising about 25,000 workers. Their involvement led to a near general strike across Toronto’s construction industry, including work stoppages on the subway line, the Malton airport, the Gardiner Expressway, the sewer system, and other industrial and commercial projects. The most active supporter of the Brandon Union Group during the 1961 strike was Gallagher, who carried numerous illegal walkouts, for which he received various injunctions. The international unions also contributed funds to the strike committee, some of which was raised among Italian-American union men.

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1961 strike clippingsThe aggressive tactics deployed in this strike were similar to the previous one, yet more violent. This led to numerous confrontations between strikers and non-unionized workers, contractors, and the police, often involving projectiles, like bricks, wood planks, and even an axe. The bloody results of these battles were reported daily on the front pages of Toronto’s press. This time around, developers were prepared to fight back by offering financial aid to any company that resisted the unions’ demands. The Metropolitan Home Builders Association also counted with the support of the Ontario Minister of Labour Charles Daley, who initially expressed his willingness to mandate the illegal strikers back to work should the builders desired it. In the first week alone, the strike had reportedly stopped the building of 20,000 housing units. Intimidated by the unions’ show of strength, the Builders, led by H. P. Hyatt, asked the federal Minister of Immigration Ellen Fairclough to deport those immigrants who had engaged in violence on the picket lines. The minister rejected this suggestion, as did the general public, who criticized the developers for their threats. Still, the ever-present fear of deportation among newcomers grew. Toronto’s mainstream press, which had largely been on the side of the workers in 1960, was now more ambivalent in their strike coverage given its widespread violence. The police apparatus was also greater this time, and was instructed to crackdown on strike violence. This resulted in nearly 200 arrests; many under dubious charges. On June 20 alone, forty-one strikers were arrested on a housing subdivision project in Etobicoke. One of the men arrested that day was the Italian newcomer John Stefanini, then a Local 183 business agent hired by Gallagher, who was sentenced to six months in jail on obstruction charges. The seemingly arbitrary arrests and harsh sentences 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 burden on the unions’ treasuries, which had to pay for their members’ hefty bails.

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Goldenberg Commission_verticalOn 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. Yet the strike continued. According to Irvine, one of the reasons holding up a an agreement between unions and employers was the amount of money that the latter owed for past grievances. At this time, construction on the University subway line had stopped under the Queen’s Park Legislative buildings. On June 14, following an engineer’s report showing that the work stoppage placed the tunnel at risk of collapsing, along with the parliament buildings’ foundations, Gallagher sent a team of expert miners from Local 183, led by then business agent Michael Reilly, to inspect the site. Once they confirmed the engineer’s assessment, thirty-five workers were sent back to work so to ensure the site’s safety.

On June 26, the Brandon Union Group and their Trades Council allies shut down every construction project in the city for twenty-hour hours, and held a solidarity rally at the CNE Grandstand attended by more than 17,000 workers and a list of prominent labour leaders, including Gallagher, William Jenovese, David Archer, William Sefton, Murray Cotterill, and others. The Telegram’s Frank Drea called it “the greatest rank and file rally in the history of the Canadian labor movement.”[9] The next day, Premier Frost appointed the veteran labour lawyer H. Carl Goldenberg to lead the Royal commission on Labour-Management Relations in the Construction Industry. See text below on the right for more.

The strike dragged on for another three weeks, seriously straining the strikers’ livelihood and weakening their resolve. Many non-residential workers started breaking rank and voted to return to their jobs against the wishes of its union leaders. This weakened the industry-wide threat of a general strike, which the 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 they and their families had made. Other than the royal commission, the only other gains were the reaffirmation of the Bricklayers’ Local 40’s previous agreement with the contractors and a Memorandum of Understanding with the other Brandon unions. After the initial hesitation, the 2,500 workers in the theatre finally erupted in cheers and carried Zanini and Irvine on their shoulders, happy that the strike was finally over.


Gallagher’s support for the Brandon Union Group and his role in expanding the 1961 strike beyond the residential sector, confirmed his status as an influential, up-and-coming labour leader, who commanded 2,500 labourers, about 70% of whom were immigrants.[10] But the cause that made him famous in the 1960s was health and safety standards in one Canada’s most dangerous industries. After the Hoggs Hollow tragedy, Gallagher launched an unrelenting and uncompromising campaign, which used frequent and often illegal work stoppages on contractors who refused to provide for the safety of their workers. As he was fond of saying: “When it comes to human life, we’re in a hurry.” [11] In motorcades of up to 300 men sometimes, “Gallagher’s Guerrillas,” as one reporter called them, picketed construction sites across the city. This earned Gallagher the reputation of being unreasonable and excessive in the eyes of contractors, who were equally relentless in launching unsuccessful court actions against his many illegal walkouts. As he put it: “The law of self-preservation transcends all laws… If a man does something that his life is in danger, he must have the right… to say no.” [12] Gallagher’s eagerness to pull his men from jobs at the slightest safety infringement or affront to their personal dignity was a deliberate nuisance; a direct-action tactic that simultaneously removed workers from immediate danger and increased his leverage to bring about industry-wide changes. It contrasted with the piecemeal gains achieved through collective bargaining with individual employers, as was the norm in Canadian labour politics. Although his methods were reminiscent of Irvine’s and Zanini’s maverick style, Gallagher pleaded with his men not to use violence, unlike the Brandon Hall duo. Listen to Gallagher talk about his style of labour activism.

Gallagher’s activism also ran counter to the business-friendly ways of the industry’s safety watchdog, the Construction Safety Association (CSA). Composed of construction companies that voluntarily paid into the Workman’s Compensation Board, the CSA’s main focus was educating workers about safety standards through lectures, films, and publications. They did this while simultaneously opposing new safety legislation and mandatory regulations. For instance, even though it recommended the use of hard hats, the CSA opposed making it a mandatory piece of equipment on construction sites, claiming that it would be impossible to enforce on every project. The inadequacy of their approach to safety was evident in the deaths of  the carpenters David Mackey, 45, Eugenio Caraccio, 45, and David Brown, 44, who died on separate dates within a five-month period, in 1961-62, in the building of the new terminal at the Malton International Airport. All three men fell to their deaths through unfenced openings on higher floors: Mackey fell through an escalator hole; Caraccio lost his balance as he was pulling a plastic sheet from a concrete form; and Brown fell as he was fastening a plastic sheet, one hour after having attended a CSA training session about the dangers of pulling plastic sheeting. Under the law, municipal safety inspection was not required on this building site, where Malton township officials were not even aware of the Building Trades Protection Act’s existence. However, despite their different approach to promoting health and safety, even the CSA’s general manager Gilbert Samson had to acknowledge that Gallagher’s activism was the main reason why safety conditions improved in Ontario: “He has been a monkey on the back of a lot of people and they have had to do things to get him off.” [13]

Gallagher’s activism certainly made him many enemies, but also many allies, including the Ontario and Metro Toronto’s Chief Coroner Morton Shulman. The Irishman found a kindred spirit in Shulman, whose outspoken style made him an effective advocate for regulatory changes. The two men met several times in the City’s Morgue or in construction sites where Local 183 workers lost their lives, consulting each other on how to prevent further deaths. The growing number of construction deaths and the high profile of some fatal accidents during this period made this a regular topic of discussion in the press – for more see our data map and  timeline on construction-related deaths.

One such accident took place on the night of May 26, 1961, when a formwork collapsed during a concrete pour on the Bloor-Danforth subway project, killing the carpenter foreman John Blaney, 29, and engineer Edgar Ostkamp, 34, and injuring three others. The accident triggered public outcry about work safety standards and prompted a coroner’s inquest. Shulman found that the bracing of the formwork had been improperly installed, resulting in charges against the contractors Frankel Steel Construction Co. Ltd. and McNamara-Raymond Construction Co. Ltd. He also placed some of the blame on the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) for improper supervision.

Five months after this accident, the Royal Commission on Industrial Safety, chaired by Judge P. J. McAndrew, released its report. Appointed by he Ontario government shortly after the Hoggs Hollow tragedy to review workplace safety regulations in various industries, the commission heard from over 110 experts and stakeholders; including Gallagher. One of its main findings was that the “archaic and outmoded” Building Trades Protection Act of 1911 was “almost unknown and unenforced” across the industry; even the Building Trades Council of Ontario was unaware of it. The report also criticized the complacent attitude of the various industrial safety associations and the lack of enforcement by its inspectors, pointing to the Hoggs Hollow accident as a tragic example. The commissioners recommended that the existing regulations be replaced by a new comprehensive act, and that the provincial Department of Labour, which had previously been nonchalant about its responsibilities pertaining to the safety legislation, be properly mandated to enforce it. They also called for the creation of an advisory Ontario Safety Council, composed by employer, union, and other professional representatives. The report also recommended that: 1) regulations on the use of compressed air in tunnel work be revised in light of medical evidence concerning the health risks associated with caisson disease; 2) that safety inspectors speak to the workers and not just the foremen when visiting work sites; and 3) that a mandatory licensing system for contractors be created, based on their compliance with safety rules. On the latter, the commissioners expressed concern about the growing number of “‘fast-buck’ or ‘fly-by-night’ builders, or the unqualified and speculative newcomers whose record demonstrates a serious lack of knowledge of safety responsibility, and respect for legislation.” They blamed this unsafe working environment on the ultra competitive and unethical bidding process by which developers hired contractors, forcing the latter to make impossibly low bids on building contracts, which they met in part by skirting costly safety measures. The current system, the commissioners noted, gave “an unfair advantage for this irresponsible element.” Besides concluding that the construction industry was unable to self-regulate, the commissioners also lamented the absence of strong unions in the sector that could stabilize it through collective bargaining. [14] See the full report here.

Following these recommendations, the Ontario government passed the Construction Safety Act on August 1962, which updated rules for the construction of buildings, trenches, streets, highways, and wells. It also stated that the responsibility for enforcing workplace safety lied with the province’s Department of Labour, instead of with the municipalities. Still, the latter continued to be responsible for appointing and paying for safety inspectors. While a step in the right direction, the new legislation did not curb the number of accidents in the construction industry, which remained very high throughout the 1960s. According to the CSA, in 1963, 77 construction workers died in Ontario and 15,088 “lost time” injuries were reported. These were record-high numbers when considering the industry’s 125,000 employees. By comparison, the manufacturing industry, which had six times as many workers, had 88 fatalities and 32,000 “lost time” injuries in the same period. [15]


NDP federal candidates (clockwise from bottom) Val Scott, Sid Dunkley, Gerry Gallagher, Andrew Brewin, and Robert Beardsley, surrounding Irma M. Douglas – wife of Tommy Douglas. Photo by Frank Lennon. 1962. Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection, Toronto Star Photo Archive.

As Gallagher’s labour activism gained momentum so grew his public profile. This made him a desirable candidate for the leaders of the recently formed NDP, who invited him to run as a federal candidate in the riding of Broadview in East Toronto. In the federal elections of March 1962, Gallagher would come in third place with 5,276 votes, behind the Liberal candidate and the Progressive Conservative incumbent George Hess. In 1964, he ran on the North York Board of Control’s inaugural election, finishing in sixth place with 16,547 votes.

Gerry Gallagher records 12.jpegGallagher’s political interests were not limited to trade unionism and workers’ safety. He occasionally spoke publicly on such issues as war and free speech. On March 26, 1966, the Second World War veteran participated in an anti-Vietnam War march in Ottawa, where he gave a speech in front of the Parliament Buildings to a crowd of 3,000 protesters.On December 16, 1967, he spoke at a much smaller free speech rally on Nathan Phillips Square, protesting a proposed by-law that sought to regulate public speeches or performances; a proposal first introduced after the Allan Gardens riot in 1963, where the leader of the Canadian Nazi Party, John Beattie, was set to speak before being shut out by a large crowd of Jewish protesters. On this occasion, Gallagher threatened to put his Local 183 men to work unseating any city councillor who voted in favour of the public speaking by-law. As he put it: “I don’t like Beattie, or whatever his name is. The Nazi. But by God I want to stand up here and defend his right to speak.”[16]

Listen to Gallagher’s views on freedom of speech as an Irishman.


Gallagher’s health and safety campaign continued, now taking the fight to the Queen’s Park Legislative building, which saw numerous protests by Local 183 outside its front steps. His political leverage grew alongside Local 183’s membership, which included highway, dams, and pipeline workers, and landscapers after the Laborers’ international granted it jurisdiction over heavy construction in 1964. That year, the Ontario government introduced the Industrial Safety Act. Under this legislation, “safety” was defined as “freedom from injury to the body or freedom from damage to health.” It also prohibited anyone from using machinery that they reasonably believed to be unsafe or that contravened the Act. At this point, Gallagher created within Local 183 the position of Safety Director – possibly the first in a Canadian union – for which he hired Norman Pike. The towering 24-year-old Newfoundlander would command a sizeable group of demonstrators, whom at a moment’s noticed descended on uncooperative job sites and shut them down. Many of the men in Pike’s entourage were disabled workers, like himself, who had lost sight on his right eye in a tunnel explosion and damaged an eardrum after working in a compression chamber. Gallagher was impressed with Pike’s ingenuity, who came up with interesting and effective new ways to preach safety to the workers. Including having a list of safety regulations be read in English, Italian, and Portuguese during Sunday church sermons, for which he obtained approval from the Catholic Archbishop Philip F. Pocock. This initiative later expanded to parishes outside of Toronto. In Pike’s estimation, these safety sermons would not only inform the workers but also their wives and children, who would then put pressure on the men to wear their hard hats and safety boots.

Another important milestone were the regulations introduced in 1964, which reduced the maximum number of hours allowed for underground work in compressed air, from eight to four hours a day. Those tunnellers who developed “the bends” also had a better chance of recovering, after the Toronto General Hospital acquired a decompression chamber. Previously, people suffering from decompression sickness in Toronto had to be transported to Buffalo for treatment. The 18-ft. long cylindrical steel chamber cost $50,000, which was covered by the hospital, the Workmen’s Compensation Board, and the Ontario Department of Labor. It allowed for a portable single-person chamber to be attached on one end, thus allowing patients to be transferred without having to undergo a change in pressure. By the time it went into operation, on August 21, 1964, there were about 300 men working under compressed air in various underground projects across the city.

Despite these regulatory victories, the accident toll continued to climb, along with its financial costs. Over 125 workers died from construction accidents in the Greater Toronto Area from 1964 until the end of the 1970s; in Ontario there were 473 fatal construction accidents between 1963 and 1973. [17] Contractors still enjoyed a great deal of lenience from inspectors and the courts, and often got away with serious offences. As the Toronto Star noted, in January 1966, the fine for having a pet dog bite a person was forty-seven times higher than the maximum fine ($500) for an individual convicted for breaching the Construction Safety Act, even when resulting in the death of a worker. In some cases, even these fines were suspended by the magistrates. Gallagher, Shulman, and other safety advocates criticized the courts for not taking this problem seriously enough, and the municipalities for not hiring more inspectors. Meanwhile, the accident rate continued to rise, even though its exact number was unknown given the improper reporting from Ontario 19,000 contractors. This had significant material consequences, since employers paid into the Workman’s Compensation Board (WCB) funds proportionally to the number of accidents that their company had.

Royal Commission Workmans Compensation Act
Click on the image to access the report.

On June 16, 1966, the Ontario government appointed Justice George A. McGillivray to chair the Royal Commission in the Matter of the Workmen’s Compensation Act. Between September and November the commission held hearings in Toronto, where dozens of stakeholders presented their views on the WCB’s adjudication process and compensation, and medical concerns on a variety of industries. Local 183’s delegation presented a brief that asked for the WCB to take on the responsibility for all safety supervision, as opposed to the existing division of tasks between the WCB, Department of Labour, municipalities, and safety associations. That system, Local 183 argued, was wasteful and inefficient, leading to many instances where one site was visited by multiple inspectors while others were neglected. Gallagher’s delegation also discussed the long-term heath effects of “the bends” on tunnellers and how it could stay undetected for months or years after the fact. Here they presented the research findings of Dr. Jorge A. Gamarra, who had come from Peru to study at the Toronto East General Hospital Research Foundation. According to Mike Reilly, Dr. Gamarra had been asked to carry experiments with decompression sickness, but was told by his superiors “not to go too deep” and never to share his findings with Local 183. But once he learned more about the effects of “the bends,” he did approach Gallagher with the information that they later presented to Justice McGillivray. Backed by Dr. Gamarra’s insights, Local 183 recommended that mandatory medical examinations for tunnellers be done every two weeks, and that the WCB’s medical forms be changed to include more information related to caisson disease. Released on September 15, 1967, the commission’s report made forty-one recommendations on how to improve the application of the Workmen’s Compensation Act, including increasing payments to injured workers and widows, and changing the basis of compensation for tunnellers in order to account for sudden injuries resulting from caisson disease. After this, not only did the WCB began accepting evidence of this type of injury, it also funded an Ontario-wide study on underground tunnel work led by Dr. Gamarra. [18]


Gallagher on Canada

Gallagher’s activism projected him into the media’s spotlight, not only as a frequent newsmaker but also as a public persona admired by some and detested by others. Such was his notoriety that the CBC’s groundbreaking TV drama series Wojeck featured a fictional version of him in its first episode, aired in 1966. The show followed Dr. Steve Wojeck, a principled Toronto coroner dedicated to finding justice for those deceased under suspicious circumstances. Inspired by the real-life inquiries of Morton Shulman, the show was praised for its realistic representation of the city and its diverse people, and for dealing with complex and timely social issues. It enjoyed high ratings until it was cancelled in March 1969. The pilot episode, titled “Tell Them the Streets are Dancing,” told the story of an Italian tunneller who died from “the bends” and of the coroner’s investigation into the dangerous working conditions facing immigrant tunnellers in Toronto, leading up to a deadly tunnel collapse reminiscent of the Hoggs Hollow tragedy. Like much of the press coverage of the 1960-61 strikes, this episode portrayed Italian immigrants in a positive light and shed light on their discrimination and exploitation by “Old Toronto.” The episode opened with one Italian worker, played by Bruno Gerussi, pleading with his union boss, who resembled Gallagher, to take action against the mounting tunneller deaths, to which the latter responded: “How can I call a strike? You tell me that. We still have a contract, haven’t we?” Gallagher was not pleased with this representation. He later noted: “[The show]showed the Italians in a better light than the Irish and the Irish were robbed at that time.” [19] Then on June 16, 1966, the CBC aired a TV documentary about Gallagher’s life titled “Can You Hear Me?” as part of its  evening magazine show “TBA” hosted by Warren Davis. Listen to Gallagher tell the story of how the documentary got its title.

Since he first partnered with the Telegram’s Frank Drea, Gallagher had become adept at using the media to exert pressure on politicians and contractors. As he put it: I tried to be reasonable in the things that we did. We never broke anybody’s head, we never broke any windows. These things were accomplished by propaganda and by use of the news media which fortunately, in the matter of safety, they couldn’t deny us.” [20] One example of Gallagher’s successful use of the media to mobilize public support was during his feud with the TTC over the latter’s reluctance to memorialize the workers who had died in the building of the subway. The TTC was preparing to inaugurate the Bloor-Danforth subway line with a ceremony on February 25, 1966, which was to be attended by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Premier Leslie Frost, and other dignitaries. Missing from this inaugural event was any representative from the construction workers or a reference to the nine men who had died on that project. Upset about this omission, Gallagher suggested to the TTC that it include in its inauguration the unveiling of a plaque honouring these men. Much to Gallagher’r surprise, the public company refused. In response, the Local 183 boss threatened to picket the opening ceremony and turned to the press. As he put it: “We know that finances are involved and the big shots should be mentioned, but so should the guys who worked and slaved and died underground.” [21]

In this he was supported by Ann Park, a previously anonymous Toronto citizen who started writing letters to the press endorsing Gallagher’s plaque idea until she formed a committee to advocate for it. In the meantime, Gallagher recruited the help of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, who agreed to tell the driver of the ceremonial subway train carrying the dignitaries, not to leave the station and read a statement through the speakers calling for an official tribute to the fallen workers. Finally, a week before the ceremony, TTC officials revealed to Gallagher an oil painting by Edwin McCormick of a labourer working at the top of a trench on a subway construction site, which was to be installed on the Bloor and Yonge subway station. The painting and the desired plaque were unveiled by Parker, the TTC, and the Toronto Building Trades Council on April 30, 1967.


Bridge safetySustaining the media’s interest, along with the public’s pressure on politicians to act, was still a challenge. In Gallagher’s estimation, shared with a reporter on December 1965: “The public is only shocked when there’s a disaster involving several lives. But on a day-in, day-out basis, accidents are getting worse, not better (…) It’s taking your job in your hands if you question your foreman about safety on the job. He’s bound to tell you. ‘There’s the gate’.” [22] Eight months later, another shocking accident resulted in the death of nine construction workers and over sixty injuries. On August 10, 1966, a 160 ft. section of a bridge being built on Ottawa’s Heron Road collapsed, falling twenty meters onto a bank of the Rideau river as the workers were pouring concrete. The horrific scene, where broken and pierced bodies were pulled from the wood, concrete, and steel rubble, some barely alive, some dead, carried on sheets of plywood by panicked workers and nearby park goers, were seen in newspapers and television sets around Canada and the world. Many of the workers were newcomers from Italy and Portugal who spoke little English and had no identification on them. The coroner’s inquest found the contractor O. J. Gaffney Ltd. and the team of engineers that worked in the project to be at fault for not using proper materials and design in the concrete falsework. [23]

Two years later, another bridge under construction was in the news for being unsafe. Both the Laborers’ Local 183 and the Ironworkers’ Local 721 picketed the bridge widening project on Leaside’s Millwood Road in August 1967, run by the contractor Raney Brady McCloy Ltd. Norm Pike took reporters to the site, where they could see loose wood planks scattered everywhere, no guardrails, and a section that had recently caved-in. According to Local 183’s Safety Director, four labourers had been fired already for complaining about the unsafe conditions. Besides the well-being of the nearly one hundred workers on this project, Pike was concerned that the bridge might collapse onto the Don Valley Parkway below, where traffic continued to flow. [24]

1968 clips


1968 would be the second most deadly year in metropolitan Toronto, with fifteen confirmed construction-related deaths. By then, safety advocates began drawing attention to the financial costs of building accidents, hoping that the negative impact on the industry’s “bottom line” would prompt companies to improve their safety record. According to the Toronto Star, construction accidents in Ontario cost a total $150 million in 1967. By 1972, the total cost of the over 18,000 compensable injuries in Ontario’s construction sites was six times greater than the net profit for the industry. Still, the CSA and some city officials continued to blame primarily the workers, with statements like: “it’s impossible to fight an individual’s stupidity.” The CSA’s general manager, Gilbert Samson, also dismissed Gallagher’s and Pike’s “wild” language, of the kind that “gets attention” by referring to their “emotional” dedication to protecting the lives of workers. Another factor often cited by employers and municipal safety inspectors was the foreignness of most construction workers, who according to them were not properly educated and were unfamiliar with construction equipment in Canada. “They’re a bunch of eager beavers and they get killed trying to prove how good they are,” said the Toronto Chief Construction Safety Officer to a Toronto Star reporter, who pointed out in his article that some of the workers who had died were experienced and educated. To combat the immigrants’ “bad habits,” the CSA continued to invest in education campaigns in the order of $1.5 million per year, which included television ads, information literature, and courses in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and German. [25]

In the Summer and Spring of that year, the CSA joined with Local 183 and three other construction unions in sponsoring a safety inspection survey of 105 municipalities (only 45 replied), led by Norm Pike. The results revealed that about 75% of municipal safety inspectors in Ontario were under-qualified and that most were overworked; Pike exempted the City of Toronto in this negative assessment, since its ten full-time inspectors were “doing a good job.” The stop-work orders issued by municipal inspectors were often ignored by contractors, who knew that municipalities rarely filled injunctions, given that they feared paying heavy damages to the companies if they failed to prove the charges in court. Sometimes this had fatal consequences, as was the case in November 17, 1965, when the 55-year old worker Joseph Wawrzonek was killed in a demolition project run by Teperman and Son’s Ltd. The company had been issued a stop-work order the day before the accident and chose to ignore it. Three years later, Wawrzonek’s case was still being fought in the courts. “Charges are laid against contractors for failing to comply with orders,” Pike added, “but it takes months for these cases to get to court (…) Often, by then, the job is finished, nobody’e been hurt – by the grace of God – and the contractor gets off with a light fine, or no penalty at all.” In one case, a contractor in Scarborough ignored twenty-eight stop-work orders over a period of six months, which saved its company an estimated $75,000. When the case was finally heard in court, the company was found guilty of one infraction and paid the maximum penalty of $1,000. As a result, Pike concluded, hundreds of construction workers in Ontario were being “needlessly killed” and thousands “needlessly injured.” [26]

Pike’s findings were the basis of discussion at a meeting of the four construction unions, the CSA, and various mayors in Ontario at the Lord Simcoe Hotel, on September 10, 1968. From that assembly came a brief that was presented to the Ontario government’s Labour Safety Council, which called for: 1) safety inspections to be transferred from the municipalities to the Ontario government; 2) stop-work orders to be issued by the courts instead of municipal inspectors; 3) fines for infractions to be increased, especially those ignoring “stop-work orders;” 4) special courts to handle construction industry cases; 5) the provincial government to pay for safety inspection courses; 6) contractors, foremen, and supervisors to be licensed; and 7) general contractors to be required to employ a safety manager at each site.

Industrial Safety Act 1970
Click on the image to access the 1970 Industrial Safety Act.

With the mounting pressure on Queen’s Park to act on this file, the Ontario government revised the Industrial Safety Act in 1970. The most significant change was that it gave workers the right to refuse work that they believed put them at risk, while protecting them against reprisals from employers who were not compliant with the law. See the full text of the Act hereAlthough welcome, the new legislation fell short of the long list of recommendations that Local 183 and its allies had made, particularly around matters of enforcement. Those concerns would be addressed in the new Construction Safety Act of August 1, 1973, which transferred the responsibility over safety inspections from the municipalities to the provincial government. See the full text of the Act hereThe impact of this measure was clear and immediate. During the first ten months of 1974 alone, provincial government safety inspections resulted in 321 convictions; 195 more than the previous year. Nine out of ten cases resulted in convictions. By that point, the injury rate in the construction industry had dropped by 2% every year since 1971. [27]

Provincial legislation would be improved again in 1978, with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which combined the Construction Safety Act, the Mining Act, the Employees Health and Safety Act, and the Industrial Safety Act into one. Gallagher would die before he saw the positive impact of this legislation, and of the new government services and programs introduced in its aftermath, which would lead to a significant reduction in injuries and deaths. Gallagher’s legacy, however, was present in the minds of policymakers, union leaders, and contractors who applied this Act, as demonstrated by CSA’s awarding of its Roy A. Phinnemore Award to Gerry Gallagher in the early 1990s.


See JohnnieSince the mid-1960s that Gallagher began experiencing severe health problems that landed him in the hospital multiple times. Two of those occasions came at the worst of times for the business manager, since they coincided with Local 183’s first and second strike in 1964 and 1967. On both occasions, Stefanini replaced Gallagher at the helm and twice led the union into victory; the second time he was carried on the shoulders of elated union members. In the process, Stefanini, who became secretary-treasurer in 1966 (the union’s second highest position), was able to expand the number of job classifications and associated members certified by Local 183 – see John Stefanini’s bio for more.

On April 14, 1968, Biagio Di Giovanni, a recently ousted member of Local 183’s executive board, held a protest meeting at the St. Clair Theatre attended by 180 Italian local members. Four days earlier, Di Giovanni had been removed from his executive position and banned from holding office for life. An internal trial condemned him for writing an article in an Italian-Canadian newspaper accusing the Irish-led executive of discriminating against the local’s 2,500 Italian members, who made up the vast majority of its 3,100 membership. Prompting Di Giovanni to write the article was the fact that he had been laid off from his construction job the month before, despite the fact that he was a union steward, which meant that his position was protected under the collective agreement. He also accused Gallagher and then President Reilly of replacing three laid-off Italian labourers with Irishmen. According to Reilly, Di Giovanni held a grudge against the executive since the time that he asked for a job as a business agent, to which he was told that he had to first learn how to read and write in English. [28]

Corner of Spadina Ave. and St. Andrew St., looking south-west
Labour Lyceum. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 2032, series 841, file 47, item 9.

A week later, on April 19, about 300 Italian members of Local 183 battled with 200 “English-speaking” and Portuguese members during a union meeting at the Labor Lyceum on Spadina Avenue, where Di Giovanni was to be reinstated as a board member. As Gallagher told the Toronto Star: “It’s a miracle the boys only ended up with a few cuts rather than somebody getting killed.” According to him, what had happened was “a racial demonstration against those who don’t speak Italian, caused by a few Italians who refused to keep quiet when English was spoken. Finally some English guy got fed up.” [29] That newspaper described the incident as a “riot,” which started when a “beefy man” in the audience urged the crowd to “make some noise” while Stefanini read the minutes of Di Giovanni’s union trial in Italian. In response, several of the members started throwing ashtrays and chairs at each other across the hall, causing the audience to stampede towards the exit, brawling along the way. The fighting stopped after twenty policemen arrived at the scene and dispersed the crowd. In his statement to a reporter, DiGiovanni claimed that all Italians in Local 183 agreed that they were being discriminated against by the Irish executive when it came to assigning jobs. He also claimed to have been attacked by six men prior to the meeting and that the violence at the Labor Lyceum had been planned in order to stop the proceedings, in order to prevent him from being voted back into the executive.

On May 19, another meeting was held. This time, the union placed sergeant-at-arms around the hall to prevent disruptions. Tensions ahead of the meeting were high after the Toronto Telegram quoted Pike saying that he was fed up with “these Italians;” he later claimed to have been referring to a small group of troublemakers and not the whole Italian membership. Despite the fears of repeated violence, the meeting went ahead without incidents, except for the complaints of reporters who were told to leave the hall after Reilly accused them of “distorting the facts.” Only the editor of the Italian-Canadian newspaper Corriere Canadese was allowed to stay after pleading with the Italians in the audience, arguing that their community would otherwise not be informed about the union’s affairs. He was able to report that Di Giovanni was reinstated in the executive board after signing a public retraction a week earlier.

shotgunGallagher’s health had begun to deteriorate at this point, which caused him to miss this meeting. A more imminent threat to his life happened during a Saturday morning executive meeting at Local 183’s headquarters on October 5, 1968. James Gibb, a 55-year old union member since 1959, stormed into the boardroom and put the muzzle of a loaded shotgun on Gallagher’s head. The nervous man accused those present of misusing union funds; except for Gallagher, whom Gibb claimed was “being misled” by his executive. According to Pike, who was able to sneak out and call the police, the man had always been a good member and a stable individual until he sought the job of recording secretary, which had been denied to him by the members two years prior. During that tense half-hour, Gibb hit Reilly on the side of the head with the gun barrel after he tried to dissuade the assailant. Later Gibb asked Reilly to get him a glass of water. When the man took his finger off the trigger to pick the glass, the business agent Daniel Ryan grabbed the shotgun and the others took down Gibb. [30]

This period of turbulence within Local’s 183 executive ended in 1969, when Gallagher stepped down as business manager and made way to Stefanini, who was then the secretary-treasurer. According to the Italian organizer, Gallagher decided to give him the official title without any pressure from anybody, but simply as recognition that Stefanini had become the de facto business manager of Local 183, as a result of the founder’s deteriorating health. After this Gallagher took on the largely ceremonial role of president, or as Stefanini put it “business-manager emeritus.”


In the mid-1960s, high rise apartment builders in Metro Toronto sought cheaper constructions materials and labour techniques to reduce their project’s massive upfront costs. One such material and technology emerging in this period was concrete forming, particularly flying form – see text box on the right for more. In the residential sector, Nick Di Lorenzo was the dominant contractor in this growing sector. Besides importing the flying-form technique from Europe and the tall cranes that made it possible, Di Lorenzo’s cost-cutting innovations included the creation of “teamwork.” In these work gangs, about a dozen men worked together over the duration of a project, performing all of the tasks involved in concrete forming; none of which required a fully trained craftsmen. This “teamwork” cut labour costs significantly since it replaced five different types of skilled unionized workers, previously hired to do individual tasks. This was directly opposed to the segmented way in which the construction labour market and unions operated, with jurisdictional boundaries defined by craft. Another reason why Di Lorenzo was able to corner the new concrete forming field was his aggressive outbidding and bullying of competitors, which he was able to do by keeping wages low. His companies employed about 60% of all forming workers, many of whom were paid less than $1 an hour. The working conditions in Di Lorenzo’s projects were appalling even by the standards of the time. Accidents were a daily occurrence, some resulting in deaths – from 1958 until 1929, at least twenty-seven people lost their lives in apartment building construction projects in Metro Toronto, of which at least five were employed by Di Lorenzo. Keeping unions out of his companies was essential to Di Lorenzo’s business model. Besides deploying legal techniques, like changing his companies’ names so to make them difficult to certify, Di Lorenzo’s union-busting and business competition involved violent tactics, enforced by the “private investigator” Norman Menezes. Some of Menezes’ tasks involved threatening business competitors and union organizers, damaging their construction projects, and identifying union-friendly workers within Di Lorenzo’s companies. Altogether, concrete forming contractors would employ the largest number of workers out of all trades: about 3,000 men, most of them Italian immigrants. These new powerful companies also held a great deal of leverage when it came to negotiating contracts, given the fact that most of the work on a high rise project could not begin until the building’s concrete shell was completed.

Unions had a difficult time organizing Di Lorenzo’s companies not just because of his aggressive tactics, but because of the jurisdictional juxtaposition inherent in concrete forming work. To overcome this barrier, in 1965, five international union locals of the Toronto Building Trades Council – the Carpenters, Cement Masons, Iron Workers, Laborers, and Operating Engineers – created the multi-craft Council of Forming Trade Unions (CFTU). Under this alliance, each of the five unions could sign up forming workers regardless of their trade. The CFTU had some success in signing up new members, until a rival union appeared in 1968. That year, the Italian newcomer Gus Simone, leader of the small Wood and Metal Lathers’ International Union Local 562, launched his own concrete forming union drive. Despite the fact that there was no lathing in concrete forming, and therefore no jurisdiction for Local 562, Simone was able to create a concrete forming division within his local under Canadian law – outside of North American trade union conventions and Washington’s rules. In this he was helped by the Irvine, who offered Simone financial aid through his Plasterers’ Local 117. This allowed Simone to hire Zanini – who had recently been released from jail – as a business agent.

The biggest hurdle for Simone was Di Lorenzo. Without his signature, it would have been foolish for the smaller contractors to sign a collective agreement that increased their labour costs and expect to outbid their larger competitor. But after multiple discussions with Simone, Di Lorenzo was finally convinced that sooner or later his companies would be unionized and that his best option was to accept Local 562’s offer to organize forming workers as a single trade (as opposed to the CFTU’s five) under an unprecedented five-year agreement that froze wages and guaranteed no strikes. Not only did Di Lorenzo agree, he assigned his public relations officer George Orla and crane operator foreman “Big” John D’Alimonte to organize his company workers into Local 562’s forming division. All that D’Alimonte had to do was threaten to fire anyone who did not join the union. It only took half a day to sign up all crane operators, then the remaining workers soon followed. Once Di Lorenzo was on board, the other contractors followed. On November 4, 1968, the purposely-founded Forming Contractors Association, representing nearly all (sub)contractors, signed a five-year collective agreement with Simone’s Local 562. A “sweetheart deal” in the eyes of the CFTU and other unions. Only three contractors did not sign; two of them were Di Lorenzo’s main competitors, who opposed his dominance over the newfound association: Leader Structures, co-owned by the Italian Aurelio Bianchini, and Frank Kiri Forming, owned by Kiriakos Vlahos. These two companies signed a contract with the CFTU a few days later.

This turn of events upset the CFTU, which filed charges against Simone’s “sweetheart deal” in the Ontario Labour Relations Board, on the grounds that Local 562 had no jurisdiction over concrete forming. The board agreed and ruled Local 562’s agreement illegal. At this time, the CFTU allegedly offered to pay for Simone’s organizing expenses if he agreed to transfer the workers to them, which Simone declined. Soon after this, Bianchini’s and Vlaho’s company offices and building projects became the target of arson and sabotage, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. In some cases, workers’ lives were endangered, as when a sabotaged elevator cable broke, dropping three men down eight storeys; or when a concrete steel bucket nearly tipped over a group of workers. Altogether, there were nine cases of arson or industrial sabotage in southern Ontario between August 1968 and March 1969, all of them targeting concrete forming companies opposed to Local 562. Responding to this “Union War,”as the Toronto Telegram described it, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Metropolitan Toronto Police, and the RCMP launched an investigation called Project B, which included infiltrating union meetings. Their prime suspects included Simone and Di Lorenzo, whose projects and workers were not attacked. Another suspect was Zanini, who maintained his innocence. Speaking at the annual conference of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, at Knox Presbyterian Church, on March 5, 1969, Toronto’s Chief of Police James Mackey stated that an extortion racket was behind the recent explosive attacks that had caused $750,000 in damages, and made specific reference to the “criminals” running the Lathers’ Local 562. However, he presented no evidence to corroborate these claims. This provoked a backlash from the Toronto Building Trades Council, which called for Mackey to either lay charges or resign for having “smeared the whole labor movement.” About twenty Local 183 members picketed the Toronto police headquarters the next day until Gallagher was granted a meeting with Mackey to talk about the allegations. After their meeting, Mackey told the press that Local 183 was not the target of his accusations. [31]

Before he was replaced by Stefanini as business manager, Gallagher set in motion a plan to take over the Lathers Local 562’s concrete forming division, which represented about 2,500 workers. First, LIUNA’s Washington office transferred jurisdiction over Metro Toronto’s forming labourers from its commercial Local 506 (a CFTU member) to Local 183. Then in May they arranged a discreet meeting with Simone and Zanini in Washington, where Local 183 offered to take the Lathers’ forming division in return for a $15,000 lump sum payment and the promise of hiring the two Italian organizers. By Gallagher’s account, Stefanini conducted this negotiation given the fact that he spoke Italian. According to the Irish leader, Zanini and Simone wanted control of their division’s finances, which they were refused. [31] At another meeting hosted by LIUNA in Chicago, on May 23, which brought together union officials and concrete forming contractors (including Di Lorenzo). Here, the president of the Lathers’ International agreed to transfer Local 562’s forming division to the increasingly powerful Local 183, and that Simone should work for them as a part-time director and adviser. The Forming Contractors Association agreed to it after LIUNA allegedly offered to lend them $2 million. With this takeover, Local 183 asserted its dominance over Toronto’s construction industry.

Left out of that arrangement was Zanini, who immediately began telling Local 562’s forming workers that they had been “sold like cattle” in Chicago, and that his union members and business agents “wanted no part of the Laborers.” [32] On June 1, 1969, he called a meeting at Lansdowne Theatre, where Gallagher and Stefanini believed they would be ratifying the merger of Local 562’s forming workers, until they were barred from entering the theatre. The 1,400 workers inside voted in favour of creating a Canadian union, independent from the Washington-based internationals, which became the Concrete Forming Workers Union (CFWU) Local 1. Zanini became the union’s President, D’Alimonte the Vice-President, and Enzo Ragno the Secretary-Treasurer. The next day, Local 1’s workers walked out of apartment building sites across Metro Toronto, including all of Di Lorenzo’s projects. A few days later, the contractors capitulated to Zanini’s Local 1 and agreed to its demands at a meeting held at the York Centre Ballroom; including Di Lorenzo, whose companies employed about 1,000 of the local’s 1,700 members. This became national news once the CBC’s journalist Ed Cosgrove started reporting on it. The story at this point was framed as a battle between international (or American) and Canadian unions. At the same time, in a panel discussion with the CBC’s news talk show host Warren Davis, Zanini suggested that the problem was not being part of an international union, since he had wanted to stay with Local 562. The real issues, he claimed, were that he resented being told by Washington what to do with his men and why must he transfer them to the Laborers. When asked about Gallagher’s threat to pull his Local 183 members from any job that employed Local 1’s men and boycott ready-mix cement, Zanini said emphatically: We could care less about Gerry Gallagher… Gerry don’t have any men out there… In the apartment field it’s us. We have the membership.” Also part of this TV panel was Simone, who supported Zanini’s claim that the Lathers’ and Laborers’ internationals had made no qualms about transferring the workers without first asking the workers what they wanted. He added that Gallagher “should be throw in jail” for making “empty threats.” Interviewed for that same show, Gallagher in turn speculated that Zanini was simply trying to use the workers to get a better deal for himself and pointed to the earlier “sweetheart deal” that he and Simone had sign with forming contractors. [33]

In reality, unlike Simone’s “sweetheart” approach to labour-management negotiations, Zanini’s confrontational tactics won increases in wages, vacation pay, and benefits over a three-year contract. Gallagher remained true to his word and launched a campaign against Zanini’s independent local, together with the CFTU and the other international unions of the Toronto Building Trades Council. Gallagher, who had locked arms with Zanini in 1961, now engaged in a public war of words the Italian organizer with a checkered past.

One of the international unions to join the fight against Zanini’s “Canadian” union was the Teamsters’ Local 230, which represented 850 ready-mix concrete truck drivers. However, some of the members ignored their union executive’s order to walk out, allegedly because they never received it. The Building Trades Council then decided to picket one of the ready-mix concrete suppliers, Teskey Ready Mix Ltd., where the company’s president, George Teskey, tried to drive one of his trucks through the picket line after his Teamster employees refused to do so. One picketer who refused to move was hit by Teskey’s truck. In response, the picketers dragged Teskey out of his truck and tried to beat him. But his Teamster employees intervened and nearly came to physical altercation with the Council’s men, before the Metro’s police riot squad separated the two groups. Eventually, a group of contractors filed injunctions against the illegal work stoppage, which ended Local 230’s strike in the second week September. After that, the Teamster’s exercised their right not to cross legal picket lines set up by other Council unions in various building projects. Tensions were once again high on September 11, 1969, when 300 CFWU members tried to invade the strike headquarters of the Operating Engineers’ Local 793, located at the York Centre Ballroom. Many of Zanini’s forming workers arrived on two buses provided by Di Lorenzo’s company. For close to two hours, the two sides shouted at each other from across the narrow street, until the crowd dispersed.

A week later, the Toronto Building Trades Council reached a deal with six apartment builders: Meridian Property Management, Greenwin Property Management, Cadillac Development Corp., Heatcliffe Development, Belmont Construction, and Goldlist Construction. The companies agreed to: only hire sub-contractors in seven trades (i.e. plumbers; sheet metal workers; electricians; hoisting engineers; painters and glaziers; lathers; and ceramic and tile setters) that had agreements with the Council; recognize Local 183 as the bargaining agent for labourers hired directly by the builders; and bring the hourly wage rate for residential labourers to the same level as the commercial sector. The deal also included an “owner-builder” clause that allowed for developers building on land that they owned to hire residential union workers, even if it was a commercial project; this clause would be removed in 1974. This transferability of unionized workers across sectors greatly benefitted this small group of apartment developers, which could now employ lower paid residential workers in commercial project. This agreement, however, failed to eliminate the CFWU, since developers refused to include concrete forming or any of its five associated trades in the agreement.

In the end, Zanini won. But despite his celebratory statements to the press, the victors of this “warfare” between the “American” and “Canadian” unions were not entirely clear; although the losers certainly were. The illegal stoppages had cost the Toronto Building Trades Council about $75,000 in strike pay to the Teamsters’ drivers, which depleted its funds. The Washington offices of the international unions had to send money to replenish the treasuries of their Toronto’s locals. But Zanini’s relative victory was short-lived. In late September, the CFWU lost its Vice-President D’Alimonte, who later confessed to have been threatened and bribed into resigning by Simone. But the biggest blow was the Ontario Labour Board’s twice refusal to certify the CFWU’s right to bargain for forming workers. Running out of options, Zanini accepted to merge his uncertified union with John Meiorin’s own independent Canadian Union of Construction Workers Local 1, in March 1970. Despite Meiorin’s support, Zanini’s division continued to struggle financially and his members became increasingly restless. Once again, Irvine came to Zanini’s aid by offering to take his men under his newly chartered Plasterers’ Local 733, and hiring him as a business agent. For a brief moment, the Scottish-Italian maverick duo was back. As a result of this, Irvine and his four Toronto locals were expelled from the Building Trades Council.

On July 30, 1971, Local 183, now led by Stefanini, split from the CFTU and started organizing forming workers on their own. With the help of a group of Italian-Canadian contractors, Local 183 reached an agreement on September 7 that covered all forming workers in metropolitan Toronto. Like the Building Trades Council had done in 1969, Stefanini signed this deal not with the contractors but with five of the largest apartment developers: Belmont, Cadillac, Del Zotto, Greenwin, and Meridian. To draw them in, he offered to lower wages and employer welfare payments. Local 183’s swift victory was confirmed a few months later at a meeting between the Plasterers’ and Laborers’ international executives in New York, where the first agreed to dismantle Irvine’s Local 733 and transfer its workers to Local 183. In return, the Plasterers were allegedly given $0.5 million. Stefanini then took advantage of the “owner-builder” clause in the Building Trades Council agreement with the apartment developers and moved into the commercial sector.


When Stefanini became business manager and secretary-treasurer of Local 183, Gallagher took on the role of president. Although largely a ceremonial role, especially when compared to his former position, Gallagher did not sit idle in the union’s new office building. He continued to organize rallies and make media appearances, advocating for issues that mattered to his union men. In the early 1970s, the most important issue to them was the lack of jobs. According to Gallagher, about 35% of Local 183’s 6,000 members were unemployed in 1971. [34] With this in mind, Gallagher became a vocal supporter of the controversial Spadina Expressway project, which had been paused in September 1969 following well-organized opposition from most of Toronto City Council and from a group of young urban activists and academics known as the Stop Spadina Save Our City Coordinating Committee (SSSOCCC). Moved by environmental, heritage, and local community preservation concerns, these activists were able to convince Premier Davis to cancel the project on June 3, 1971. In Gallagher’s words: “[I]f we’re going to cut back projects, then we have to plan, before the cutback, for the men who will be thrown out of work. What about them?” [35] In response to the project’s cancellation, Gallagher urged his Local 183 men to vote out “anti-development” mayoral and alderman candidates in the 1972 municipal elections. On Ward 7 (Cabbagetown), he told union members to vote for Richard Kirkup, who was running against the reform candidate and leading member of the SSSOCCC, John Sewell. On November 20, Gallagher organized a “pro-development” rally at Nathan Phillips Square, attended by about 400 labourers, who walked off their jobs for two hours with their employers’ consent. One after another, mayoral and aldermanic candidates, including the reform candidate and soon to be Mayor David Crombie, declared themselves “absolutely in favor of planned development;” however, they differed on the kind of development. [36] Many of the Local 183 men carried signs supporting the Liberal mayoral candidate Anthony O’Donohue, an Irish Catholic, for whom Gallagher tried to obtain the Metro Toronto Labour Council’s endorsement. Also endorsed by Local 183 were aldermen Art Eggleton and Joseph Piccininni.


Like most economic sectors in Canada, the construction industry was impacted by the oil crisis of 1973-74 and the soaring inflation that ensued. During this time, long-term unemployment became a serious problem for construction workers and for the unions that represented them. Still, Local 183 managed to grow under Stefanini. In 1974, they signed an agreement with the association of concrete forming sub-contractors, which created a new welfare and pension fund. The following year, Local 183 established an Industrial Division, after it organized building superintendents, maintenance, and janitorial workers hired by the companies affiliated with the Property Management Services Organization. In 1977, it established a Training and Rehabilitation Trust Fund, which employers paid into. This was possibly the first workers (re)training program in Canada established as a labour-management partnership. That year, Local 183 also founded its own credit union and dental clinic, located on a new building near Davenport Avenue and Dufferin Street. By then, the union had grown to over 8,000 members distributed across multiple sectors. While still present in large numbers, the once predominant Irish and Italian workers were now a minority within the union, after the arrival of large numbers of Portuguese immigrants in the 1970s, who became the dominant workforce in Metro Toronto’s construction history.

This growth unfolded while Gallagher’s health was deteriorating and his role in Local 183 becoming less central; at the some point in the early 1970s he became the local’s Director of Social Services. Among the local’s older Irish members, there were many who saw Gallagher’s exit from the centre of decision-making as a coup. This, however, is not the view of the Gallagher family, as expressed by Gerry’s son Michael: “To say that he was forced out would be an insult to the people that came after, and it would be an insult to him as well, because he was not a man easily pushed aside.” [37] While his body slowed him down, Gerry Gallagher’s spirit remained defiant. By the late 70s, he had grown frustrated with Stefanini’s corporate style of labour-management relations. In an interview to the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, on February 4, 1978, Gallagher’s stated: “They have the old fashioned belief the boss must be right or touch your cap or take off your hat when you arrive, the old thing which we’ve gotten rid of. They depend upon the lawyers to handle their affairs.”On Stefanini’s decision not to appoint him to Local 183’s newly formed Safety Committees, Gallagher noted: “[H]e’s afraid of what I will do. He’s afraid that I’ll stop the jobs. Unions have been sued for millions of dollars, but I don’t give a damn. I’m not oriented at all. To me human life if the most precious and I shouldn’t have to say that.”[38]


Gallagher deathGerry Gallagher died of a heart attack on September 2, 1978, Labour Day weekend. He was 64 years old. The press remembered him as a “non-conformist,” whose relentless activism “incensed many contractors” who, nonetheless, “invariably” respected him; an expressive man who “kissed the blarney stone a hundred times;” and the single most important factor pushing Ontario’s safety legislation. The turnout for Gallagher’s funeral was massive, “like a head-of-state,” as his son described it. Listen to Michael Gallagher’s memories of his father’s funeral.

Local 183 honoured its founder by naming its new building after him, at an unveiling ceremony on March 8, 1979, attended by Premier Bill Davis, Mayor John Sewell, and other government and union dignitaries. Also present at this ceremony was Gerry’s wife Olive and their children, who have continued to honour his memory in public and private ways. Two of the couple’s five children – Deirdre, Sheila, Kathy, Maureen, and Michael – followed on their father’s activist footsteps. Deirdre became a feminist organizer involved in a number of organizations and causes, including with the United Steelworkers, where she developed a program aimed at breaking barriers facing women and encouraging them to become union members and officers. Michael became a labour organizer himself, climbing the ranks of the Industrial Union of Operating Engineers Local 793, where he has been the business manager since 1996. He is also the Vice-President of the international union in Washington, and the former president of the Construction Safety Association of Ontario. Equally important to Gerry’s children were the private actions and character of the public man. They remember him as an avid storyteller; a gifted singer who knew the lyrics to “about 150 songs;” a confident yet modest man who was often “the first one to laugh at himself;” a kind soul who was adverse to hate and injustice; and a loving father. As Michael noted:

In our house the word love was used often, and most often by my dad.”[39]




[1] Interview with Gerry Gallagher. © Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Irish Canadian Collection, 4 February 1978, IRI-04541-GAL.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Interview with G. Gallagher, 1978.
[4] Giancarlo Stefanini. Strike! La Storia di Un Italiano in Canada. Roma: Edizioni Lavoro, 2014: 21.
[5] Gerry Gallagher. Maclean’s Magazine (?). April 1970: 91.
[6] “Labourers’ International Union of North America Local 183.” Brochure. March 8, 1979: 53
[7] Jack Cahill. “Ghost of nine tough diggers ride ceremonial train.” Toronto Star. February 25, 1966: 29.
[8] Interview with G. Gallagher, 1978.
[9] Frank Drea. “Hundreds More Join Construction Strike.” Toronto Telegram. June 26, 1961.
[10] George Graham. “2,500 Laborers Plan Strike Against Metro.” Toronto Star. March 21, 1961: 25.
[11] “Subway walkouts were to save lives.” Toronto Star (date unknown).
[12] Interview with G. Gallagher, 1978.
[13] “Society make the bite of a dog costlier.” Toronto Star. January 6, 1966: 5.
[14] “Report of the Royal Commission on Industrial Safety.” Government of Ontario. October 16, 1961: 13, 17.
[15] Arnold Bruner. “Accident bill $223 million a year.” Toronto Star. April 29, 1964: 7.
[16] “Union boss threatens to unseat councillors.” Globe & Mail, December 18, 1967: 5.
[17] “”Construction Safety.” Toronto Star. January 18, 1974.
[18] “Union wants all safety put under compensation board.” Toronto Star. September 16, 1966: 31. Interview with Michael Reilly. © Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Irish Canadian Collection.
[19] Interview with G. Gallagher, 1978.
[20] Ibid.
[21] “Union to picket ceremony at Bloor-line opening.” Globe & Mail. January 26, 1966: 5.
[22] Gordon McCaffrey.”Building Accident rate worse: union official.” Toronto Star. December 3, 1965: 31.
[23] Bruce Deachman. “The Ottawa bridge collapse that shocked the world.” Ottawa Citizen. January 20, 1070.
[24] “Leaside bridge in danger of collapse, union man says.” Toronto Star. August 23, 1968: 21.
[25] Jim Robinson. “Building accidents, a $150 million curse.” Toronto Star. July 13, 1968: 7.
[26] John Doig. “They’re battling for safety laws that STICK.” Toronto Star. August 31, 1968: 10.
[27] “How the Unions fight for the right to work in safety.” Toronto Star. December 14, 1974.
[28] “Dismissal protested by Italian laborers.” Globe and Mail. April 15, 1968: 5.
[29] “Firing sparks’ laborers brawl.” Toronto Star. April 20, 1968: 4.
[30] “Threatening notes sent to contractor amid police charges.” Toronto Star, March 6, 1969: 1 & 4. “Mackey Follow,” CBC TV news clip, March 6, 1969.
[31] “The Day It Is,” CBC TV, June 3, 1969.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Globe & Mail. November 21, 1972.
[35] Gallagher cit. in Kenneth Bagnell, “Labor in Ward 7.” Globe and Mail. November 16, 1972: 47.
[36] “Candidates face 400 construction workers.” Globe and Mail. November 21, 1972: 4
[37] Interview with Mike Gallagher, April 24, 2018.
[38] Interview with G. Gallagher, 1978.
[39] Interview with M. Gallagher, 2018.