Pike, Norbert (Norm)

Norm PikeBirth: 1939
Place of birth: Lawn, Newfoundland
Affiliations: Laborers’ International Union of North America’s Local 183

EARLY LIFE

Norbert (Norm) John Pike was born in 1939, in the small fishing village of Lawn, located at the tip of the Burin Peninsula in southern Newfoundland. He started working in the St. Lawrence fluorspar mines at a very young age while pretending to be older; as he later told a journalist, he had been shaving since he was twelve. Pike was fired from that job once they discovered that he was underage. In 1957, like so many other Newfoundlanders before and since him, Pike moved to Ontario in search of employment at age 17. He found work washing cars in London, making $0.09 per vehicle. After two months of that, he started working on an excavation tunnel, where we would be buried for four hours due its collapse. Pike decided to try his luck in Toronto’s booming construction industry, where he again found work as a tunneller; a dangerous but well-paid job, where he soon became a foreman. Once he settled in that job, Pike continued his formal education by attending night school and taking correspondence courses.


THE HOGGS HOLLOW TRAGEDY

Telegram_Hoggs Hollow collageOn the evening of March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, a group of miners were trapped by a fire in an watermain tunnel’s main shaft, in an area known as Hoggs Hollow. The fire had been caused by an overheated electric wire during the welding of one of the 30-foot 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-feet away from the closest exit, on the wrong side of the fire. Two of the men who managed to escape 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 breath. The rescue team were left with an excruciating decision: to clear the smoke by decompressing the tunnel, which would condemn the men to “the bends” and flood the tunnel with silt and water, likely causing it to collapse; or let the fire run its course and hope that it would extinguish quickly? The firemen waited half an hour before pouring water through a hole in the tunnel side. 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-inch to crawl through, in total darkness and scorching heat. The workers Valentini and Jack Corigliano volunteered to go back into the tunnel and search for the men.

Hoggs Hollow sketchs
Artist sketches of the Hoggs Hollow tragedy. (Top) Walter, Toronto Telegram, March 18, 1960, p. 29; (bottom) artist unknown, Toronto Telegram, March 24, 1960, p. 3.

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, 51. This veteran miner, who had migrated from Belgium ten years prior, was the farthest from the exit but quickly realized that the only escape was through the muck and fire. According to his later testimony, he pleaded with the other men to follow him and even tried pulling one, Pasquale Allegrezza, 26, but they fought him back in panic was forced to let him go. His emergence from the feared tomb 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 soon crushed, after three rescuers, who managed to crawl 150-feet into the narrow tunnel, returned empty-handed, except for the news that 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 were recent newcomers. 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. Pike was part of the team of miners who pulled the bodies out. This experience certainly replayed in his mind, especially when he was nearly killed himself while working in the subway tunnels, twice being buried to his waste and once having an air pumping machine blowing up in his face, causing the loss of his upper teeth and sight on his right eye. Working in a compression chamber also damaged the eardrum on his right side.


“MR. SAFETY”

In 1958, Gerry Gallagher, the founder and leader of the Laborers International Union of North America’s Local 183, began organizing tunnellers in the subway, sewer and watermain sectors. One of the man he signed was Pike, who made a strong impression on him. Such that he appointed Pike to be Local 183’s Safety Director – possibly the first such position in any union in Canada – in 1964, when he was only 24 years-old. After the Hoggs Hollow tragedy, Gallagher launched a very public and dynamic campaign to improve health and safety standards in the construction industry, which used frequent and often illegal work stoppages on contractors who refused to provide for the safety of their workers. His eagerness to pull Local 183 men from job sites 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. Pike was the spear’s head in this campaign. In his role as safety director, he travelled across Ontario doing unannounced inspection “blitzes” at construction sites where Local 183 men were employed. When a contractor did not satisfy his high standards for safety and failed to comply with his demands, Pike would pull his union men from the job and call his sizeable group of demonstrators to come and shut the down the uncooperative job site.

Many of the men in his entourage were disabled workers, like Pike himself. The direct-action tactics of this “scrappy Newfoundlander” and “safety crusader,” who needed no stop-work order or an inspector badge to shut down over 350 construction projects, earned him regular mentions in press, who liked to point out his tall and “dark, good looks.” They also noted the respect that “Mr. Safety” commanded from contractors: “just the thought of Norm visiting a construction site is enough to send everyone checking their safety precautions.” [1] In Gallagher’s eyes, Pike was “the best thing that ever came out of Newfoundland. He is the quickest, brightest person I’ve come across in many a day… He’s gutsy and will face anybody when lives are in danger.” [2] The Local 183 leader was particularly impressed with Pike’s ingenuity, who came up with interesting and effective new ways to preach safety to the workers. For instance, he proposed having a list of Construction Safety Act regulations be read in English, Italian, and Portuguese during Sunday church sermons, to which the Catholic Archbishop Philip F. Pocock agreed. 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. Pike himself had a wife and three children.

Another work stoppage in which Pike was involved that generated media attention was the widening project on Leaside’s Millwood Road bridge, in August 1967. Two years after the major accident at Ottawa’s Heron Road bridge that killed nine construction workers, the Laborers Local 183 and the Ironworkers Local 721 picketed the project run by the contractor Raney Brady McCloy Ltd. As Pike showed reporters, there were loose wood planks scattered everywhere, no guardrails, and a cave-in had recently happened in one section. According to the Newfoundlander, 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, he was concerned about the the bridge collapsing and causing serious damage to the traffic still circulating on and the Don Valley Parkway below it. Despite Local 183’s and the CSA’s joint appeals for the company to run on-site safety meetings, the contractor told Pike that “he wasn’t interested in giving up even 15 minutes a month of his company’s time for safety education.” [3]

1968 clips1968 would be the second most deadly in metropolitan Toronto with fifteen confirmed construction-related deaths, after 1961 with seventeen. By now, 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 do more to improve their safety record. According to the Toronto Star, construction accidents in Ontario cost a total $150 million in 1967. Still, the Construction Safety Association (CSA) – a voluntary safety watchdog and advocacy organization run by contractors – and some city officials continued to place the blame primarily with workers, in some cases saying: “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 pointing out their “emotional” dedication to protecting the lives of workers. Another factor often cited by employers and municipal safety officers 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 the Toronto Star reporter Jim Robinson, who pointed out in his article that some of the workers who died were experienced and educated. To combat these 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. [4]

In the Summer and Spring of 1968, the CSA joined with Local 183 and three other construction unions in sponsoring a safety inspection survey of 105 municipalities (only 45 replied), which was led by Pike. As he once told a reporter, Pike usually wrote down notes on his own bed sheets during safety-related phone calls that he received in the middle of the night. [5] All of the information he amassed over the years made him a leading expert on construction safety in Ontario. The results of the survey confirmed what Pike already knew, that about 75% of municipal safety inspectors were under- or non-qualified, and that most were overworked. He excluded the city of Toronto in this assessment, whose ten full-time inspectors were “doing a good job,” he argued. But as for the other municipalities, including in Metro Toronto:

[Safety inspectors] don’t know an unsafe condition when they see it right in front of their eyes. The ones that know, issue an order only to see it, too often, ignored by the contractor, who finds it saves him money to have the men carry on working under hazardous conditions. [6]

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 worker Joseph Wawrzonek, 55, was fatally injured at 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 it 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.” [7]

His 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 in Toronto, on September 10. The different parties produced a brief that was presented to the Ontario government’s Labour Safety Council, which called for major changes in safety legislation and the enforcement of the Construction Safety Act. The brief recommended that: 1) safety inspections should be transferred from the municipalities to the Ontario government; 2) stop-work orders should be issued by the courts instead of municipal inspectors; 3) fines for infractions, especially ignoring “stop-work orders” should be increased; 4) special courts should be created to handle construction industry cases; 5) the provincial government should pay for safety inspection courses; 6) contractors, foremen, and supervisors should be licensed; and 7) general contractors should be required to employ a project manager at each site responsible for safety matters.

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 would put their physical at risk, while protecting them against reprisals from their employers whenever seeking compliance with the law. See the full text of the Act hereAlthough welcome, the new legislation fell short of the long list of recommendations of Local 183 and its allies, particularly around matters of enforcement. Those concerns would be addressed in the new Construction Safety Act introduced on August 1, 1973, which transferred the responsibility over safety inspection from the municipalities to the provincial government, as the unions had asked for. See the full text of the Act here.


IRISH, ITALIANS, AND THE TRANSITION OF POWER AT LOCAL 183

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 members of that local. 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 Local 183’s 2,500 Italian members, who made up the vast majority of its 3,100-strong membership. Prompting Di Giovanni to write that article was the fact that he had been laid off from his construction job the previous month, despite the fact that he was a union steward, whose position was supposed to be protected by the local’s 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. [8]

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.” [9] That newspaper described the incident as a “riot”, which had 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 Toronto policemen arrived 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 jumped by six men prior to the meeting and that the violence at the Labor Lyceum had been planned in order to stop the proceedings, so to prevent him from being voted back into the executive.

A month later, 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 the reporters who were told to leave the hall after Reilly accused the press of “distorting the facts.” Only the editor of the Italian-Canadian newspaper Corriere Canadese was allowed to stay after pleading with the Italian members 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 retraction a week earlier, which he published in a different Italian-Canadian newspaper.

Gallagher’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, 55, a union member since 1959, stormed into the boardroom and placed 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 was denied to him by the members two years prior. During that tense half-hour, Gibb would 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 Gibb down.

This period of turbulence within Local’s 183 executive culminated in June 1969 with the election of Stefanini as the new business manager and secretary-treasurer (a position he maintained), replacing Gallagher, who became the local’s president. It is unclear what happen to Norman Pike after this other than he owned a moving company at one point, and that he died on April 24, 2015 in Burlington, the birthplace of Local 183.


References
[1] “Law protects negligent contractors.” Toronto Star. January 6, 1966; Gerry Gallagher cit. in Lorraine Gray. “Norm Pike – Mr. Safety.” The Newfoundlander. November 30, 1968: 1; John Doig. “They’re battling for safety laws that STICK.” Toronto Star. August 31, 1968: 10.
[2] Gray, “Norm Pike.”
[3] “Leaside bridge in danger of collapse, union man says.” Toronto Star. August 23, 1968: 21. Doig, They’re battling.”
[4] Jim Robinson. “Building accidents, a $150 million curse.” Toronto Star. July 13, 1968: 7.
[5] Gray, “Norm Pike.”
[6] Doig, “They’re battling.”
[7] Ibid.
[8] “Dismissal protested by Italian laborers.” Globe and Mail. April 15, 1968: 5.
[9] “Firing sparks’ laborers brawl.” Toronto Star. April 20, 1968: 4.