Irvine, Charles W.

Irvine collageBirth and death: 1907-1981
Place of birth: Glasgow, Scotland
Arrival in Canada: 1907
Affiliations: Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association of the United States and Canada’s Locals 48, 117, 117-C, 598, 733; Brandon Union Group

EARLY YEARS

Charles W. Irvine was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1907. His parents brought him to Toronto that same year when they immigrated to Canada. Not much is known about his life before becoming a labour organizer, other that he dropped out of school at grade four, worked as a merchant seaman on a banana boat in the West Indies, and had a brief career as a plastering contractor. In 1951, Irvine became Vice-President for Canada of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association, where he would oversee the commercial Local 48 (plasterers) and Local 598 (cement masons). More than the other British-Canadian unionists at the time, Irvine understood the danger to the labour movement of neglecting the large number of cheap, non-unionized, immigrant workers arriving in Toronto’s construction industry at a time when the residential sector was growing. In 1957, he informed William (Bill) Jenovese, leader of the commercial Bricklayers’, Masons’ and Plasterers’ International Union Local 2, of his intention to create a Plasterers local in the residential sector; to which the first responded negatively. After this meeting, Irvine was approached by the Italian-Canadian labour organizer Bruno Zanini, who had overheard their conversation.

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Charles Irvine and Bruno Zanini. c.1960. Archives of Ontario, Charles Irvine fonds C331-6.

Then a business agent with the Bricklayers, Zanini had recently organized a large group of Italian residential bricklayers as an independent “union” that was later integrated into Local 2, only to be neglected by Jenovese. The two men made a positive impression on each other. Zanini was impressed by the Irvine’s combative attitude and proactive organizing, and offered to help him. Irvine, in turn, was drawn to Zanini’s streetwise charisma and, more importantly, his rapport with the rapidly growing Italian workforce. In the days following this first meeting, the Scottish-Italian duo organized 800 residential plasterers and cement finishers as Local 117 and Local 117-C, the latter led by Angelo Burigana. In early September 1957, they led a six-day illegal strike, where Irvine’s aggressive tactics were on display. “Flying squads” transported picketers from site to site, where they often caused havoc by destroying machinery and walls with bats, bricks, and buckets of lime. In less than a week, they secured the first collective agreement in Metro Toronto’s residential construction sector, which included a forty-hour week, welfare benefits, and an hourly wage increase from $1.75 to $2.68. Their swift success raised eyebrows across the industry, especially among the other residential trades, where workers and organizers were inspired to follow the Plasterers’ example. This was the case with Frank Colantonio‘s United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 1190, which launched a strike that same year. However, the Plasterers’ victory was short lived, as contractors soon started defaulting on their collective agreements.

International-OLRB-Flying Squads

In response, in 1958, Irvine successfully petitioned the Ontario government to apply the Industrial Standards Act for all plasterers across the province, who saw their work hours and wages improve to match those achieved by Local 117.


THE BRANDON UNION GROUP STRIKE OF 1960

In 1959, having seen no improvement in Local 2’s treatment of its predominantly Italian residential division, Zanini decided to break away from the Bricklayers’ International and create the independent Canadian Bricklayers Association. To resolve this feud, the Washington executive sent the union official Sam Sasso to Toronto the following year. The Italian-American convinced Zanini to reintegrate his “Canadian union” into the Bricklayers as its own Local 40. A group of bricklayer helpers signed by Zanini were also given a charter by the International Hod Carriers Building and Common Laborers’ Union of America, as Local 811, led by the Molisano George Petta. After this episode, the American-based international unions came to see Zanini as a nuisance; but not Irvine. He recognized Zanini’s growing influence over Toronto’s fast growing Italian workforce and saw an opportunity to grow his own. So he proposed forming an alliance of residential construction locals that could rival the commercial and industrial unions of the Toronto Building Trades Council.

The tragic death of five Italian immigrants working in a watermain tunnel in an area know as Hoggs Hollow, on March 17, 1960, was the catalyst. The tragic accident was covered extensively in Toronto’s press, which began paying greater attention to the exploitation encountered by immigrant construction workers in the residential sector. This was especially the case with the Toronto Telegram, where the young labour reporter Frank Drea wrote a series of stories on the difficult lives and working conditions of Italian construction workers, for which he won the Heywood Broun Award for social justice journalism. The Hoggs Hollow tragedy shocked the city and angered the Italian community, which was now ready to fight for their labour rights and their dignity more than ever. Two weeks after that incident, on April 1, the Scottish-Italian duo organized the first meeting of their rogue collective, which included the Bricklayers’ Local 40 led by Zanini and Marino Toppan, the Plasterers’ Local 117 and Local 117-C led by Irvine and Burigana, the Laborers’ Local 811 led by Petta, and the Carpenters’ Local 1190 led by Colantonio. They called themselves the Brandon Union Group, after their meeting hall on 33 Brandon Avenue.

Already motivated by their own personal experiences, the Hoggs Hollow tragedy, and the media’s vindication, the hundreds of predominantly Italian workers in the crowd would be further energized by their charismatic leaders. An aspiring opera singer, Zanini captured the audience with his dramatic gestures and lyrical training, which more than made-up for his broken Friuli dialect mixed with English. Irvine, in turn, excited the crowd with his thundering speeches and aggressive calls to action, which he underlined by waving his Irish shillelagh in the air.

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Bruno Zanini, Charles Irvine, and Frank Drea. c.1960. Archives of Ontario, Charles Irvine fonds C331-6.

At the end of the meeting, the organizers presented a list of forty contractors who skirted paying statutory vacation pay. With Drea’s help, they delivered this list to the Ontario Attorney General and the Minister of Labour. Two days later, another meeting called by the Italian leftist newspaper Il Lavoratore, drew 400 workers, who publicly demanded that the Progressive Conservative Ontario Premier Leslie Frost take action against the exploitation of immigrant construction workers. The Brandon Group’s third meeting, on April 14, drew 2,000 people. Another meeting on August 1 attracted 3,000 people. Fire safety concerns forced the organizers to move to the Lansdowne Theatre on 683 Lansdowne Avenue. This time, having misplaced his shillelagh, Irvine kicked a wooden crate and pulled a broken plank with two long nails on one end, which he brandished at the start of the meeting. Later, he held up the young daughter of one of the Italian workers and, according to Toppan, said:

I don’t know of any other people who can demonstrate such devotion for their children like you do […] You are not fighting only for yourselves, but, for the future of your children. [3]

Makeshift shillelagh collageOne after another, Irvine, Zanini, and the remaining cast of Italian-Canadian labour organizers mobilized the crowd for action, which shouted back: “Sciopero! Sciopero!”  (Strike! Strike!). The next morning, 1,000 men gathered at the Lansdowne Theatre and organized themselves into “flying squads.” In their personal cars and on the backs of pick-up trucks, they traveled in large motorcades across residential construction sites in Toronto’s sprawling suburbs. At each site they tried to stop the work, sometimes by talking the workers into leaving, other times pulling them by force. In some places, the strikers tore down walls, emptied cement bags, threw bricks and stones at fresh concrete, or at other dodging workers who refused to walk out. On the cover of the The Toronto Telegram that day, a photo of Irvine holding his ominous makeshift shillelagh, under the headline: “‘Mobilize’ Police in Building Strike.” The opening lines of Drea’s article warn the public of what was to come: “The threat of violence hung over the immigrant construction workers strike today, as police mobilized all available cruisers to head off battles between picketers and non-strikers… dozens of projects there were powder kegs where trouble could flare at any moment.” [4]

Irvine’s penchant for violence made him a feared opponent, not only to employers but the union members as well, towards whom he was known to be rude and despotic. Although controversial, his aggressive tactics worked. Nearly all fifty-two high rise apartment building projects in the city were stopped by this strike, causing around $50-million in losses. The pressure on cash-strapped and debt-ridden developers was enormous, but even more so on the (sub)contractors, many of whom were on the brink of bankruptcy. The first meeting between the Brandon Union Group and 400 subcontractors ended in a shouting match. Separate negotiations between each of the locals and their respective contractors started the following days at Brandon Hall and the Conroy Hotel. The first agreement was reached on August 10 between the Bricklayers’ Local 40 and the Masonry Contractors Association, followed by the Carpenters’ Local 1190, and the Laborers’ Local 811; the Plasterers’ participation in the strike was in solidarity, since they already had a collective agreement. By the time the strike ended, on August 17, hundreds of small and mid-sized (sub)contractors had agreed to significant wage increases, a forty-hour work week (forty-five for labourers), 4% vacation pay, safety provisions for the transportation of workers in trucks, and union recognition. The Brandon Group unions also signed thousands of new members from among 6,000 workers that participated in the strike. On August 20, they held a victory rally at the Lansdowne Theatre attended by 3,500 workers, who gave Irvine a portrait of him with a stella alpina on the frame, symbolizing leadership. The following week, about 7,500 residential construction workers marched for the first time in Toronto’s Labour Day parade, thus confirming their newfound respect from the labour establishment.


THE BRANDON UNION GROUP’S STRIKE OF 1961

1961 strike clippingsAlthough sweet, the Brandon Union Group’s landmark victory was short-lived. Those contractors that had signed collective agreements soon found themselves excluded from the residential high rise projects, as apartment developers hired the many non-unionized construction companies still available. Facing bankruptcy, many of the small contractors broke their contracts with the Brandon unions and went back to their exploitative ways, which their unemployed unionized workers begrudgingly accepted. By the spring of 1961, union officials calculated that their members were owed $500,000 in wages. The only way to confirm their previous gains, Irvine and Zanini decided, was to launch another even larger illegal strike.

On the morning of May 29, 1961, the Scottish-Italian duo led a rally at Brandon Hall attended by over 4,300 workers, most of whom had to stand on the parking lot and listen to the speeches blasted through speakers. After the meeting ended, about 200 “flying squads” roamed metropolitan Toronto carrying over 2,000 strikers bent on closing down every apartment construction project in the region. So began the Brandon Union Group’s second illegal strike. This time around, they residential union alliance counted with the support of sixty labour leaders from the commercial and industrial unions of the Toronto Building Trades Council, including the Bricklayers’ Bill Jenovese and the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 183’s Gerry Gallagher. Their involvement turned this into near-general strike, with work stoppages in the building of the subway, the Malton Airport extension, the Gardiner Expressway, the sewer system, and other industrial and commercial projects. The international offices also contributed funds to the strike committee, including donations received from Italian-American union members across the United States. The tactics used during this strike were similar to the previous year, yet more violent. As Toppan later recalled, Irvine opened the first strike meeting by slamming a brick onto the stage’s floor, setting the tone: “no more Mr. Nice Guys.” [5] This approach led to numerous confrontations between strikers, contractors, and non-unionized workers, involving bricks, stones, pieces of wood, and even an axe being used as projectiles. The bloody results of these battles were reported on the front pages of Toronto’s dailies. Irvine was blamed for this violence, to which he responded:

It all depends on who defines violence. There is another kind of violence that cuts the hearts and souls out of men: long hours, low pay, hungry children. If that isn’t violence of the worst kind I don’t know what is. It’s killed more men in this city than any 2-by-4. [6]
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Strike violence on Midland Park. Photo by Eddy Roworth. 1961. Toronto Public Library, Baldwin Collection, Toronto Star Photo Archive.

This time, developers, organized as the Toronto Builders Exchange, were also prepared to face the unions’ offensive by providing financial support to any member company that resisted the workers’ demands. The Metropolitan Home Builders Association (MHBA) also counted with the support of the Ontario Minister of Labour Charles Daley, who in June 2 stated his willingness to force the illegal strikers back to work should the builders request it. By this point, the strike had reportedly stopped the building of 20,000 houses. Intimidated by the unions’ show of strength, the MHBA, led by H. P. Hyatt, asked the federal Minister of Immigration Ellen Fairclough on June 7 to deport those Italian immigrants who had engaged in violence on the picket lines. The minister rejected this suggestion, but the ever-present fear of deportation among newcomers grew as a result. Ultimately, Hyatt’s strategy backfired, as more members of the public criticized the builders for their threats. Nonetheless, 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.

Goldenberg Commission_verticalThe police apparatus was also greater this time, resulting in nearly 200 arrests; many under dubious charges. On June 20 alone, forty-one strikers were arrested on a housing subdivision project on Neilson Avenue, in Etobicoke. One of the immigrants arrested that day was John Stefanini, then a business agent with Local 183, who was sentenced to six months in jail on trespassing 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 heavy financial burden on the unions’ treasuries, which had to pay for their members’ hefty bails. On June 9, prompted by the strike’s quick and widespread escalation, Premier Leslie Frost offered the unions a “peace plan” that included: the creation of a temporary arbitration board; the appointment of more government inspectors to investigate labour standards violations; and the appointment of a royal commission inquiry. Despite having agreed to end the strike in a private meeting with Frost, Irvine did not follow through and the strike continued. On June 22, Irvine and Zanini suspended the “flying squads” and told the strikers to “keep your hands in your pockets” so to avoid further violence and bad publicity. Four days later, the Brandon Union Group and the Toronto Building Trades Council shut down every construction project in the city for twenty-four hours and held a solidarity rally at the CNE Grandstand, attended by more than 17,000 workers and a list of prominent labour leaders. Drea called it “the greatest rank and file rally in the history of the Canadian labor movement.” After banging his shillelagh, Irvine addressed the workers: “We could settle this tomorrow and go back to work. But next year the war would be on again. When we go back, we stay back because the mess in Toronto has to be cleaned up once and for all.” [7] The following day, June 27, Frost appointed the labour lawyer H. Carl Goldenberg to lead the Royal commission on Labour-Management Relations in the Construction Industry.

The strike dragged on for another three weeks, seriously straining the strikers’ livelihood and weakening their resolve. It was then that the many private contributions made by the strikers’ wives became most apparent. Besides their traditional contributions as homemakers, wage-earning women became the “breadwinners” during the length of this strike, some taking waged work in Canada for the first time. According to Irvine, one of the reasons holding up a settlement with the employers were the amount of money they owed for past grievances. Many commercial workers began breaking rank and voted to return to work, against the wishes of its union leaders. This weakened the industry-wide threat of a general strike, which the Toronto Building Trades Council tried to salvage by running sympathy strikes in various sectors. In response, contractors filed court injunctions against the leaders of these illegal work stoppages, especially Gallagher’s Local 183. Meanwhile, in an effort to re-gain the upper hand, Irvine and Harold Weller, of the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers union, travelled to Miami to meet with Jimmy Hoffa, the infamous leader of the International Teamsters’. On July 6, the Scotsman convinced Hoffa to order Toronto’s Local 230, which represented cement-truck drivers, to not cross the picket lines.

Then suddenly, on July 15, Irvine and Zanini announced the end of the strike. This came as a surprise to the workers, who were not consulted on this decision, as the democratic principles of labour unionism demanded. Gathered in a “victory rally” at the Lansdowne Theatre the next day, the workers initially reacted to the news with ambivalence, despite Irvine’s exultation:

This is the day you can become men again and Canadian citizens. You have a place in this country now and you can keep it. [8]

AO Irvine 47Their gains since Frost’s initial offer were not clear, especially when considering the sacrifices that their families had made. After the initial hesitation, the 2,500 workers in the theatre finally erupted in cheers and carried Zanini and Irvine on their shoulders. After all, one-third of residential construction contractors had signed collective agreements, with the labourers winning a $2 increase in hourly wage and the bricklayers $3.05. Italians, in particular, had also developed greater collective consciousness, political leverage, and civic pride, along with increased respect from their fellow Torontonians. The strike also confirmed the permanence of the new residential construction locals and introduced a new cast of immigrant union leaders of proven skill and influence. Still, the division of the construction labour movement into different trades and sectors, leading to discrepancies in wages, benefits, safety standards, and work hours, would generate rivalries, jurisdictional battles, and incentivize raiding across unions. The absence of a single big union that could bargain for equal standards across the industry would continue to limit their leverage and scope.


Contractors_sub-contractors_ownersTHE END OF THE BRANDON UNION GROUP

The business agents hired by the now expanded Brandon Group unions soon became neglectful of their duties, allowing working conditions to once again deteriorate on construction sites. In response, their international offices sent a team of labour experts from the United States to educate the rookie Canadian agents, but also control them. These American envoys began deploying aggressive tactics commonly used in the United States, including rotating illegal walkouts that pushed many (sub)contractors out of business, including ethical ones. At this point, it became apparent that an extortion ring had been set up by labour racketeers, who demanded pay-offs or a percentage of profits from companies that wished to avoid work stoppages. In some cases, the union dues checked off from the workers’ paycheques, meant to build up their welfare benefit funds, were misappropriated.

Starting in 1961, a group of plastering contractors organizing illegal price-fixing schemes  in order to defend themselves against the bidding wars promoted by unscrupulous. Each of the member companies in this ring contributed funds to a bid repository. The organization then assigned jobs to its associated contractors, who then estimated its price at cost plus 30% and a “kicker.” Meanwhile, the other participating contractors were not allowed to make a lower bid of their own. In order for these schemes to work, they needed an enforcer, which were the unions. Some union leaders agreed not to sign collective agreements with contractors who were not members of the bidding ring, or to withhold workers and picket the sites of uncooperative members. The contractors’ ring then paid for the wages of those workers who were pulled from their for this enforcement purposes. These payments could add up to large sums of money that never entered the union’s books. As it would be revealed by the Waisberg Commission, Irvine and Edward Thompson, the business manager of the Plasterers’ commercial Local 48, were instrumental for the success of the plastering contractors’ price-fixing schemes.

[THIS SECTION IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION.]

After the 1961 strike, rumours emerged that some builders had been extorted by crime syndicates to stop the labour dispute and were incensed by the fact that it had not.rumours emerged that some developers had been the target of extortion by mobsters who said they would stop the labour dispute should the builders pay a hefty sum of money. Allegedly, some builders did pay and were upset that the strike continued, believing that Irvine or Zanini had pocketed their supposed pay-off. At this point, Zanini began receiving threatening phone calls, had his tires slashed multiple times, and was shot at while in his car; the bullet grazed its rooftop. Between September and October, 1961, three apartment construction sites in Metro Toronto were also blasted by dynamite. The assailants and their motivations were never discovered.

On February 1962, Zanini passed the leadership of the Bricklayers’ Local 40 to Toppan and became a consultant and conciliator for the Laborers’ International. On October 15, both Local 40 and the Laborers’ Local 811, with a combined 2,000 members, broke away from the Brandon Union Group. One of the main reasons for it was the ultimatum issued by the Masonry Contractors Association, which rejected to sign a new collective agreement if the two locals remained in the residential union alliance. This would lead the Laborers’ to revoke Local 811’s charter and instruct Zanini to sign the men with another local. Zanini’s decision caught Irvine by surprise, prompting suspicions that the Italian-Canadian organizer had made some kind of secret deal with the builders and was now trying to weaken the residential unions. The fatal blow to the Brandon Union Group came when a large number of Carpenters’ Local 1190 members left the alliance, following Irvine’s firing of Colantonio for having signed a collective agreement that reduced hourly wages without consulting the union’s membership.

Paul Volpe mugshot
Paul Volpe

After this break-up, Zanini was approached by Paul Volpe, a man with an imposing physique who called himself a labour consultant. According to the RCMP, Volpe was one of the leaders of the Canadian branch of Stefano Magaddino’s crime family based in Buffalo, which specialized in narcotics, extortion, and gambling. Volpe asked Zanini why he decided to “destroy” the Brandon Union Group, to which the latter allegedly explained that he was merely following orders from the Laborers’ International office. Around the same time, Zanini found out that someone had tried to hire a hitman to shoot him, but nothing came of it because the would-be shooter (presumably Thomas Kiroff) was an acquaintance of his. The anxiety resulting from these scares took a toll on Zanini’s health, who developed neurasthenia (physical fatigue, headaches, and irritability produced by emotional stress). It also estranged him from the workers and his consulting duties. Zanini decided to hire two bodyguards who occasionally escorted him. These men were also burglars, like Zanini had been in his youth. In December 1963, his criminal past caught up with him. According to Zanini, the two men convinced him to drive them to a doctor’s house on Forest Hill for a break-in. But they walked into a police trap. The three men were arrested while parked on the street before the heist even took place. Zanini would find himself in prison again in 1965 for sixteen months.


Apartment boom-Flying formUNIONIZING CONCRETE FORMING WORKERS

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, and 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, doing 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 around 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 in 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 members regardless of their trade. The CFTU had some success organizing concrete forming workers, until another rival union group appeared in 1968. That year, the Italian newcomer Gus Simone, leader of the small Wood and Metal Lathers’ International Union’s 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 Irvine, who offered Simone financial aid through his Plasterers’ Local 117.

Zanini was released from jail around this time. He tried to find work with various unions, offering to organize forming workers, but was rejected every time. Eventually he found work as a campaign staff for a Toronto politician. It was through this job that he encountered Simone, who hired Zanini as a consultant. The latter was surprised when he learned that Irvine was funding Simone’s campaign, including his salary. While Simone negotiated with the contractors, Zanini organized the workers, which he was able to do with relative ease, given that many of the men that he had organized in the 1950s-60s were now foremen who helped him spread the word. Local 562 was more successful than the CFTU in large part due to Zanini’s enduring charisma among the Italian workforce.

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. As was characteristic of Simone’s authoritarian style, the agreement was never ratified by the union’s membership. 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. The CFTU then pressed 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 the “sweetheart” agreement illegal. At the same time, the CFTU allegedly offered to pay for Simone’s organizing expenses if he agreed to transfer the workers to them, but he declined.

At this time, the Laborers’ Local 183 set in motion a plan to take over the Lathers’ Local 562’s concrete forming division, which represented about 2,500 workers. In May, they set up a discreet meeting with Simone and Zanini in Washington, where Gallagher 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. The deal worked against Irvine’s own plans to integrate Local 562′ forming workers into his Plasterers’ Local 117. In fact, he was in Washington at that time to present his jurisdictional claim over Toronto’s forming workers at the International Building Trades’ board. Growing increasingly concerned about the terms of the deal and the seriousness of Local 183’s commitment, Zanini informed Irvine about the deal in the making. The news enraged the Scotsman, who now saw Simone as a traitor and allegedly uttered a threat on his life should he accepted the offer. This did not dissuade the Local 562 boss, who flew to Chicago to participate in another meeting hosted by the Laborers, attended by international unions officers and forming contractors (including Di Lorenzo), on May 23. Here, the president of the Lathers’ International agreed to transfer Local 562’s forming division to the increasingly powerful Laborers’ Local 183, and that Simone should work for them as a part-time director and adviser. The Forming Contractors Association agreed to this arrangement after the Laborers allegedly offered to lend them $2 million. With this takeover, Local 183 asserted its dominance over Toronto’s construction industry.

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Charles Irvine outside a concrete forming workers meeting at 611 Vaughan Rd. Photo by Jac Holland. July 14, 1969. Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC52184.

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. According to him, the union members and business agents “wanted no part of the Laborers,” [*] in part because many of them were tradesmen. On June 1, 1969, he called a meeting at Lansdowne Theatre, where Local 183’s 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. According to Irvine, the decision to go independent had come from the workers themselves, who “wanted to be recognized as craftsmen, not laborers.” [9] 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 and agreed to Local 1’s terms 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 story became national news once the CBC’s journalist Ed Cosgrove started reporting on it. Interviewed by the CBC’s news talk show host Warren Davis, Zanini framed it as a battle between international (or American) and Canadian unions [see Bruno Zanini’s bio for more]. At the same time, Zanini suggested that the problem was not being part of an international, 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. 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. 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. [**]

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. In response, the Laborers’ Local 183, the CFTU, and the other international unions of the Toronto Building Trades Council launched a campaign to combat the CFWU and win over their forming workers. This included a series of illegal work stoppages against contractors who hired Zanini’s workers. Tensions between Metro Toronto’s construction unions were high, in some cases nearly escalating to physical confrontation. This was the case 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 those in 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 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 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 in money to replenish the treasuries of Toronto’s locals and pay for the remaining picketers. But, once again, Zanini’s relative victory was short-lived. After Ontario Labour Board’s twice refused to certify the CFWU’s right to bargain for forming workers, Irvine again came to Zanini’s aid by arranging the provision of funds from his Plasterers and the Carpenters. However, his efforts failed after the latter’s Washington executive were told that the Italian organizer had ties with the Mafia. 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.


DRYWALL, LATHING & ORGANIZED CRIME

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Morton Shulman speaking to reporters in his coroner’s office. Photo by Reed. April 7, 1967. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC50540.

Under Meiorin’s union, Zanini was finally able to bring forming contractors to the bargaining table without having to call a strike. In the Fall of 1970, he was negotiating with Acu-Forming Ltd., one of the largest contractors in Metro Toronto, when a new public attack further damaged his reputation. This time, the accuser was the controversial former Ontario and Metro Toronto’s Chief Coroner and now NDP Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Morton Shulman. Speaking at the provincial legislature on October 27, Shulman, who in the past had made controversial accusations without providing evidence, claimed to have learned from a leaked confidential police report that the CFWU was a mob front; a “phony… sweetheart union.” According to the MPP, Zanini was a Mafia agent backed by Johnny Papalia, Hamilton’s “kingpin of organized crime in Canada,” whose threat of violence allegedly kept Italian workers in line. Shulman also claimed that Irvine was “an agent of the Lathers’ union,” and the mastermind of the operation. In the process, he called Simone an “honest” leader, who had been threatened by Irvine after refusing an order. The MPP also alleged that the CFWU’s strike in July 1969 had been ordered by forming contractors, who planned to used it as leverage to ask more money from developers. “Crooked employers… set up a crooked union to set up a crooked strike, a phony strike,” he added. Alarmed by these allegations, Acu-Forming walked away from the negotiations.

Around this time, the Plasterers claimed jurisdiction over the drywall workers and started a unionization drive in that new field. Drywall was another cost-cutting construction material that reduced the need for skilled trades and their unions, in this case plasterers and lathers. First introduced in the commercial sector in the 1940s, drywall would become popular in the mid-1960s in the residential sector. This new technique gradually replaced gypsum board lath, which consisted of two thick sheets of paper (a type of lath) bound together by wet plaster in the middle and dried to make a board. This was used primarily in interior walls and ceilings. Drywall was a cheaper option not only because its pre-fabricated materials were inexpensive, cleaner, and allowed for greater standardization, but also because its workers, known as “boardmen,” were not (yet) unionized. In contrast, the Plasterers’ regular illegal walkouts and raising wages made them a major burden in the pockets of developers.

The number of former plastering and lathing subcontractors making the shift to drywall exploded. As in the past, these small companies were sent on a downward spiral by developers who incentivized bidding wars. While contractors were able to adapt to the new market fairly quickly, residential construction unions did not. Most boardmen were semi-skilled immigrants employed as independent workers, paid on a piecework basis, without benefits or safety provisions. Jurisdiction over their bargaining rights fell between the Lathers and the Carpenters. In 1963, the two unions agreed to a moratorium against raiding each other’s members and met various times to resolve their jurisdictional disputes, which would continue for years.

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Gus Simone speaking at a Lathers’ Local 562 meeting. June 3, 1969. York University, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC52322.

In the summer of 1969, Simone’s Lathers’ Local 562 started organizing boardmen in the residential sector. This task was made easier by the “owner-builder” clause in the agreement signed between the Toronto Building Trades Council and the Metropolitan Apartment Developers Association in September of that year. Under this agreement, developers building on land they owned could hire the lower-paid residential workers on commercial projects. Subcontractors could now save $0.90 an hour by using Simone’s workers instead of the more costly members of the Lathers’ commercial Local 97. The latter was upset about Local 562’s encroachment into the commercial sector, where it had signed a contract with one of the largest contractors. In 1971, the Lathers’ International office merged the two locals, reduced the wage rates to meet those of Local 562’s, and gave Simone jurisdiction over all boardmen in the city. Local 97 stopped this merger after filling an injunction with the Ontario Superior Court, but it was not able to prevent Simone from getting jurisdiction over Metro Toronto’s residential and commercial drywall workers.

Simone’s Local 562 had a collective agreement with the Del Zotto brothers, whose group of companies were among the most powerful in the industry. All their drywall projects were subcontracted to Durable Drywall Contracting Ltd., owned by the Italian-Canadian Cesidio Romanelli, who was also a lathing subcontractor. Simone had a close relationship with Romanelli, with whom he was involved in a price-fixing scheme. Irvine understood that in order to take Del Zotto’s boardmen away from Local 562, he had to push Romanelli out of the picture. By Simone’s account, Irvine’s entrance into this new battleground made him fear for his safety. Their relationship had been strained since the Lathers organizer had agreed to transfer his concrete forming division to the Laborers’ Local 183. According to Irvine, on March 19, 1971, he was approached by the mobster Paul Volpe and another man with a “peace offer” from Simone, which Irvine declined vehemently. After they left, Volpe called the Scotsman and invited him to a meeting at a downtown club, which the Irvine declined after consulting with Zanini.

A few weeks earlier, Irvine had once again come to Zanini’s aid by offering to take his men under his newly created Plasterers’ Local 733 and hire him a business agent. The now 50-year old Italian-Canadian organizer accepted his old sidekick’s offer and gave it another shot at securing a contract for his loyal workers. The Scottish-Italian duo was back, for a brief moment. As a result, on March 8, 1971, Irvine and his four locals (i.e. the residential plasterers Local 117, residential cement masons Local 172, commercial plasterers Local 48, and commercial cement masons Local 598) were expelled from the Toronto Building Trades Council. In the eyes of the Council’s Business Manager, Alex Main, Irvine was a “dictator” who sought to “set up a new empire” in the residential sector, where drywall was quickly replacing plastering. Main pointed to a Labor Board decision of 1960 in which Irvine had been found to have imposed a condition during bargaining with a Windsor company stating that no more than 50% of workers could be of Italian origin. “He doesn’t love Italians. He’s looking for power. He’s looking for skulls. Every head is a per capita tax for the union. Someone has to pay his wages,” Main told reporters at a press conference.

In response, Irvine and Zanini held a meeting on March 14 attended by 500 forming workers and members of the press. The two leaders denounced the Council’s actions as “harassment,” a “personal vendetta,” and accused them of sending a private detective posing as a photojournalist to take snapshots of the audience. They also accused the press of giving too much coverage to Shulman’s mob allegations, claiming that the MPP had “smeared” the Italian community by making defamatory accusations under the legal immunity provided by the legislative chamber. At the end of the meeting, Irvine banged his old shillelagh on a table and said:

Remember this? It’ll still work and it will too… You’ve built a lot of buildings in the city. You’ve built a lot of fortunes in this city. Now for God’s sake build something for yourself and your wife. [10]

The pair held a series of subsequent meetings at the Lansdowne Theatre, with disappointing turnouts. Disappointing also, in the eyes of the press, was the “proof” that Irvine presented at one of these gatherings, on April 4, 1971, that Gus Simone was the one with ties with organized crime. The Scotsman referred to Volpe’s earlier visit and his alleged association with the Lathers’ Local 562 boss. When reporters asked Irvine why he had not reported Volpe’s visit to the “proper authorities,” he replied: “Who are the proper authorities? If there were such a thing, there wouldn’t be this business.” [11] Shulman, who attended this meeting, told the press that Irvine’s presentation did not sway his views, but he noted that “both sides” now agreed that the Mafia was involved and, therefore, the attorney-general should launch a public inquiry into the concrete forming industry. He was also pressured by reporters to provide evidence of his allegations, to which the MPP admitted to have based his comments on an affidavit sworn by the union-buster Menezes and a written statement signed by D’Alimonte. Both Volpe and Simone later denied Irvine’s accusations.

Irvine and Zanini would sign several hundred forming workers into Local 733, which was more than the CFTU had. However, the duo’s alleged criminal associations, along with Irvine’s history of illegal walkouts, violent strikes, and push for ever-higher wages, frightened the builders who were no longer willing to negotiate with them. Facing this impasse, Zanini suggested that they go on strike in the summer, but to his surprise, Irvine decided against it. Even more surprising was the news, on July 30, 1971, that  Local 183, now led by John Stefanini, had decided to split from the CFTU and organize forming workers on their own, which included raiding Local 733’s membership. With the help of a group of Italian-Canadian contractors, Local 183 reached an agreement on September 7, 1971, that covered all forming workers in Metro Toronto. Like the Toronto 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. In a meeting at the Landsdowne Theatre, of so many good memories for Zanini, the veteran Italian-Canadian organizer told his men to join Local 183. As for the boardmen, Simone’s dominance over the lathing and drywall trades was confirmed when the two sub-contractor associations merged and signed a collective agreement with Local 562. It seemed that Irvine’s and Zanini’s best years were well behind them.


THE WAISBERG COMMISSION

Waisberg Commission
Click on the image to access the report.

The summer of 1972 saw the resurgence of violence in the construction industry and the spectre of organized crime looming larger. On August 23, two men shot Zanini in the leg in the underground parking garage of his Toronto social housing apartment building in Weston. He was found bleeding on the ground by his two teenage sons after an anonymous caller told them what had happened. The press gave extensive coverage to this incident. When interviewed by the police on his bedside at the Humber Memorial Hospital, Zanini speculated that this had been the work of “paid professionals” hired by the builders, who wanted to prevent another government inquiry and make him stop “probing” the apartment building industry. According to Frank Drea, now a Progressive Conservative MPP, him and Zanini were gathering evidence about the involvement of up to three crime syndicates in Toronto’s and Hamilton’s residential construction industry, which they were planning to give to the attorney general. “That’s why he was shot, pure and simple,” Drea added. The NDP MPP Shulman scoffed at this, arguing instead that Zanini’s shooting was just another episode in the ongoing battle for control over Italian workers in the city. The Toronto Building Trades Council repudiated Drea’s statement and called on him to “be specific and name names if he can, instead of just smearing everyone.” [12]

Zanini’s shooting happened at the same time that the offices of sub-contracting lathing companies were being hit by another string of bomb explosions and shootings, between July and SeptemberFollowing these incidents, on December 5, 1972, Shulman again stood at the legislature and pointed the finger at organized crime, as well as to the Ontario Progressive Conservative government for enabling the unlawful activity of price-fixing among contractors, especially in the lathing business. This resurgence of violence prompted yet another government inquiry; a welcome development for Zanini who hoped this would finally clear his name. On March 28, 1973, the new Ontario Premier Bill Davis appointed Judge Harry Waisberg to lead the Royal Commission on Certain Sectors of the Building Industry, which was to focus on the Mafia’s infiltration in the industry over the previous five years. Waisberg’s two-volume report was published in December 1974, including 13,000 pages of transcribed evidence, and 75 volumes of transcriptions from public hearings with 200 witnesses. Along with the massive report, the inquiry also generated a great many newspaper articles, where the backroom dealings, shady characters, and sometimes criminal and violent nature of metropolitan Toronto’s construction industry were exposed, furthering the public’s misgivings about its unions, contractors, and developers; especially the Italian niche.

Waisberg shot clippingsOne of Waisberg’s key witnesses was Simone, who agreed to testify under the protection of the Canada Evidence Act. The Lathers’ Local 562 boss spoke about the industry’s illicit practices, including his own, like the kickbacks and gifts he received from contractors. Simone testified that George Orla, Zanini, and Irvine were behind the arson attacks in 1968-1969. He based this accusation on the fact that Orla had visited Local 562’s office and given Zanini an envelope containing $1,500. However, Simone was not sure whether that happened a few days before or after the fire at Bianchini’s company office. He also testified that the fires stopped once Irvine asked him to “tell Bruno to stop… the thing was getting too hot.” Simone softened his claims upon cross examination, adding that Zanini had told him that the people who set the fires had done it “to discredit him,” and that he believed that the CFTU was behind it. When his turn came to testify at the Waisberg inquiry, Irvine denied his involvement in the arsons or that that he ever said the words Simone attributed to him. In turn, the Plasterers’ boss implied that Simone was behind the attacks, claiming to hear him say: “the boys did a good job.” Irvine admitted, however, to have uttered threats to Simone and pushed him against a wall after hearing about the meeting in Chicago; and that he had funded Local 562’s concrete forming campaign because he hoped to bring together lathers, plasterers, and concrete formers to prevent builders from switching to drywall. [13] The elder trade unionist also revealed that, in 1965, he had almost created a concrete forming union but his international office rejected it, fearing jurisdictional problems. Irvine told Waisberg: “They turned me down. They broke my heart. I went and got drunk for a week and haven’t done anything since.” He added:

There’s a lot of buildings where the concrete is mixed with blood in this city… they should be tearing them down instead of putting them up. [14]

RETIREMENT AND DEATH

Despite its massive investigation, the Waisberg Commission failed to be the comprehensive examination of the industry that Zanini and others had hoped for, for it limited itself to confirming the presence of Mafia elements without offering clear answers. It did, however, break the once indomitable spirits of Irvine and Zanini. Two of the Plasterers locals folded soon after this government inquiry, in part due its members desertion to the Bricklayers union, but also as a result of the dwindling of plastering as a trade. Tired and frail, Irvine retired from the labour movement in 1976 and went to work with his son on a record store for a short time. Judging by his personal photos in the archives, he dedicated much of his free time to his passion for fishing. Until he died in 1981 at age 74.

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THE SECOND EPISODE OF OUR DOCUMENTARY IS DEDICATED TO THE BRANDON UNION GROUP AND THE UNIONIZATION OF ITALIAN RESIDENTIAL CONSTRUCTION WORKERS, WHICH FEATURES ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF CHARLES IRVINE. YOU CAN WATCH IT HERE.


References

[1] Charles Irvine, April 14, 1960, cit. in Stefano Agnoletto, The Italians Who Built Toronto: Italian Workers and Contractors in the City’s Housebuilding Industry, 1950-1980. Bern: Peter Lang, 2014, 214.
[2] Marino Toppan, The Voice of Labour. A Life in Toronto’s Construction Industry. Toronto: Mariano A. Elia Chair & Frank Iacobucci Centre for Italian Studies, 2003: 57.
[3] Ibid, 77.
[4] Frank Drea. “‘Mobilize’ Police in Building Strike.” Toronto Telegram, August 2, 1960.
[5] Toppan, The Voice of Laboutr, 75.
[6] Charles Irvine (1961), cit. in Catherine Wismer. Sweethearts. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 84.
[6] Frank Drea, “Hundreds More Join Construction Strike,” Toronto Telegram, June 26, 1961.
[7] Irvine cit. in Wismer, Sweethearts, 86.
[8] Irvine cit. in Wismer, Sweethearts.

[*] Interview with Bruno Zanini, “The Day It Is,” CBC TV, June 3, 1969.

[**] Ibid.
[9] Thomas Claridge. “Boss told him to ‘form me my own union,’ worker says.” The Globe & Mail. January 30, 1974: 5.
[10] Wilfred List. “Trade’s Council declares open war on Irvine’s union.” Globe & Mail, March 26, 1971: p. 1. “Union organizer Irvine accuses building council of harassment.” Globe & Mail, March 15, 1971: 5.
[11] “Union boss Irvine says Mafia man offered to heal rift.” Toronto Star, April 5, 1971: 38.
[12] “Zanini says shot was warning to quit probing building trade.” Toronto Star, August 24, 1972: 1.
[13] The Globe & Mail, Michael Keating: “Fires linked to 3 men by Simone.” January 25, 1974: 1; “Plasterers; chief denies any part in setting fires.” January 26, 1974.
[14] Keating, “Fires linked.”