Stefanini, Giancarlo (John)

Date of birth: 1940
Place of birth: Rome, Italy
Arrival in Canada: August, 1959
Affiliations: Brandon Union Group; Labourers’ International Union of North America’s Local 183

Giancarlo (John) Stefanini was born in 1940, in Rome. His father had a restaurant in the heart of the Italian capital, where tourists from all over the world flocked to. But while the historical streets where Stefanini grew up captured the imagination of its many visitors, the young Roman dreamed of joining his brother, sister, and uncle in Toronto. In August 1959, at age 19, Stefanini realized his wish of living in North America. Initially, his plans were to pursue a university education, for which he soon started attending English classes. However, necessity forced him to look for work, which he was able to find rather quickly through his uncle, a member the Plasterers International Local 117, who found him a job as a hod carrier (plasterer helper) in an apartment building project in the northwest of Toronto.


THE BRANDON UNION GROUP’S STRIKE OF 1960

In August 1960, only a few weeks after starting his first job in construction, John, like thousands of other Italian immigrant men in Toronto, were drawn to the Italo Canadian Recreation Hall on Brandon Avenue to listen to the charismatic organizers Bruno Zanini and Charles Irvine, where he joined the Brandon Union Group. This rogue collective was formed two weeks after the Hoggs Hollow tragedy that killed five Italian immigrant workers in a watermain tunnel, on March 17, 1960. Its member unions included the Bricklayers’, Masons’ and Plasterers’ International Union Local 40 (led by Zanini and Marino Toppan),  the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Union Locals Local 117 and Local 117-C (led by Irvine and Angelo Burigana), the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 811 (led by George Petta), and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America’s Local 1190 (led by Frank Colantonio), all of whom represented predominantly Italian immigrant workers in the Toronto’s residential construction. Already motivated by their own personal experiences, the Hoggs Hollow tragedy, and the media’s vindication of their anger, the predominantly Italian workers at these packed meeting were energized further energized by Zanini’s and Irvine’s charismatic and captivating style. On August 1, 1960, fire safety concerns forced the Brandon Group organizers to move to the Lansdowne Theatre, where the crowds continued to grow. One 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. John’s brother, Sergio Stefanini, a small bricklaying sub-contractor, learned his trade from Zanini. It was Sergio who introduced them. In August 1960, John joined the Brandon Group’s flying squads and picketed construction sites in Toronto’s suburbs, talking to his fellow Italian workers to lay down their tools and join them.

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 collective 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 40-hour work week (45 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. 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

ASC52955
Lansdowne Theatre’s marquee announcing Bruno Zanini and Charles Irvine. Photo by Cooper. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC52955.

After the strike, Stefanini was hired by one of the Brandon Group’s unions. However,  his disagreement with Irvine’s and Zanini’s tactics and leadership style, namely their decision to call an illegal strike, not negotiate with subcontractors, and their absenteeism when it came to day-to-day operations, soon cost him his job. As he would put it decades later: “If you build a house, you must tend to it or it will fall apart… [I]ts finances, its membership, will not make headlines, but it makes the union.”[1] Being a young, urban, bilingual Italian speaker, Stefanini quickly found another job with the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 183, then led by its founder the Irishman Gerry Gallagher. Local 183’s membership at this point was predominantly  Irish, who were the main workforce in subway tunneling and road building, although the union also represented sewer and watermain. It was in the latter sector that the number of Italian workers grew dramatically, as they did within Local 183’s membership. The majority of these Italian workers spoke little English, which became a big obstacle when it came to organize them. Gallagher saw in Stefanini, a young, educated, bilingual speaker someone who could help him communicate with the local’s quickly expanding Italian  membership. It was as a Local 183 business agent that Stefanini experienced the Brandon Union Group’s second illegal strike of 1961.

Although sweet, the Brandon Group’s landmark victory the previous year 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, the residential union alliance counted with the support of 60 labour leaders from the commercial and industrial unions of the Toronto Building Trades Council, including the Laborers’ Local 183’s Gerry Gallagher. Their involvement turned this into a near-general strike, with work stoppages in the building of the subway, the Malton Airport extension, the Gardiner Expressway, the sewer system, and other industrial and commercial projects. The unions’ international offices also contributed funds to the strike committee, including donations received from Italian-American union members across the United States. The tactics used during this strike were similar to the previous year, yet more violent, leading to numerous confrontations between strikers, contractors, and non-unionized workers, involving bricks, stones, pieces of wood, and even an axe being used as projectiles. The bloody results of these battles were reported on the front pages of Toronto’s dailies. As a result, public opinion, which had been unequivocally on the side of these immigrant workers the year before, was now more ambivalent about their demands and tactics.

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

Front cover of Toronto Telegram, issue of June 22, 1961, reporting John Stefanini’s 6-months sentence.

The police apparatus was also greater this time, resulting in nearly 200 arrests; many under dubious charges. On June 20 alone, 41 strikers were arrested on a housing subdivision project on Neilson Avenue, in Etobicoke. One of those arrested that day was Stefanini. On that early morning, Stefanini was driving around the spots in the city where day labourers congregated waiting to be picked up by their employers. His mission was was to discourage residential construction workers from going to work during the strike. After speaking with two workers on Dufferin Street near Rogers Road, four police cruises surrounded his vehicle and arrested Stefanini on obstruction charges. He was sent to Don Jail, along with the other strikers arrested later that day. At the trial two days later, the police officer who arrested him stated that the other men arrested were fighting on the sidewalks under Stefanini’s leadership, who had ordered them, in Italian, to disobey the constable’s order to disperse. When cross-examined by Stefanini’s lawyer, the officer was unable to substantiate his claims. Still, the judge was convinced of Stefanini’s wrongdoing and decided to use this case as a deterrent for other strikers by giving him the harsh sentence of six month in prison. The seemingly arbitrary arrest and harsh sentence drew criticism from prominent labour leaders, like the Canadian Labour Congress’ David Archer and the soon-to-be leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) Donald MacDonald.

Besides intimidating strikers, these mass arrests also placed a heavy financial burden on the unions’ treasuries, which had to pay for their members’ hefty bails. On June 9, prompted by the strike’s quick and widespread escalation, Premier Leslie Frost offered the unions a “peace plan” that included: the creation of a temporary arbitration board; the appointment of more government inspectors to investigate labour standards violations; and the appointment of a royal commission inquiry. Despite having agreed to end the strike in a private meeting with Frost, Irvine did not follow through and the strike continued. On June 22, Irvine and Zanini suspended the “flying squads” and told the strikers to “keep your hands in your pockets” so to avoid further violence and bad publicity. Four days later, the Brandon Union Group and the Toronto Building Trades Council shut down every construction project in the city for twenty-four hours and held a solidarity rally at the CNE Grandstand, attended by more than 17,000 workers and a list of prominent labour leaders. The Toronto Telegram labour reporter Frank Drea called it “the greatest rank and file rally in the history of the Canadian labor movement.”[2] 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.

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Then suddenly, on July 15, Irvine and Zanini announced the end of the strike. This came as a surprise to the workers, who were not consulted on this decision, as the democratic principles of labour unionism demanded. Gathered in a “victory rally” at the Lansdowne Theatre the next day, the workers initially reacted to the news with ambivalence. Their gains since Frost’s initial offer were not clear, especially when considering the sacrifices that their families had made. After the initial hesitation, the 2,500 workers in the theatre finally erupted in cheers and carried Zanini and Irvine on their shoulders. After all, one-third of residential construction contractors had signed collective agreements, with the labourers winning a $2 increase in hourly wage and the bricklayers $3.05. Italians, in particular, had also developed greater collective consciousness, political leverage, and civic pride, along with increased respect from their fellow Torontonians. The strike also confirmed the permanence of the new residential construction locals and introduced a new cast of immigrant union leaders of proven skill and influence. Still, the division of the construction labour movement into different trades and sectors, leading to discrepancies in wages, benefits, safety standards, and work hours, would generate rivalries, jurisdictional battles, and incentivize raiding across unions. The absence of a single big union that could bargain for equal standards across the industry would continue to limit their leverage and scope.

As for Stefanini, he would split his sentence between Don Jail and the Guelph Reformatory. At the latter, he was nearly stabbed by a group of seasoned inmates who tried to steal his prison uniform. This terrifying experience would leave a lasting impression on Stefanini. It also made him even less fond of Zanini’s and Irvine’s aggressive tactics, which had pushed the 1961 strike longer than was necessary, in his estimation, and cost three months of his youth “for absolutely nothing.”[3] 

For more on the Brandon Union Group strikes’ see the second episode of our documentary.


IRISH, ITALIANS, AND TRANSITION OF POWER AT LOCAL 183

After his release from prison, Stefanini continued to work as an organizer for the Laborers’ Local 183, out of its office on Dundas Street West and Dufferin Street. Having earned considerable experience and unionist credentials in the 1960 and 1961 strikes, Stefanini now sought to learn more about the history of trade unionism in Canada. Much of his education came from Ed Boyer, a veteran of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (the predecessor of the NDP), a carpenter, and a member of the Ontario Labour Relations Board. During his trips to Toronto, Boyer would stay at Stefanini’s house on Caledonia Road, during which the eager student learned about labour laws and management practices; particularly, the importance for a union to keep its legal integrity and internal affairs in order. He also learned from Gallagher, Michael Reilly, Norm Pike, and the other officers of Local 183, who had turned that union into a commanding force in Ontario politics in the 1960s. Gallagher’s relentless, outspoken, and widely-covered campaign for improving work safety standards in Ontario’s construction industry scored many victories, resulting in a series of robust pieces of legislations, new education programs, more government inspectors, and other accomplishments that reduced work accidents over time – for more see Gerry Gallagher’s and Norm Pike’s bios, along with the first episode of our documentaryStefanini’s influence within Local 183 grew in the mid-1960s, along with its membership, the majority of whom were now Italian immigrants. As Secretary Treasurer, he was the highest-ranking Italian-speaking officer in an executive that was still predominantly Irish. But this was not yet his heyday. Stefanini’s mind was still largely in the future. During this time he took labour relations courses at night, with the goal of studying trade unionism at Harvard University. He also delegated some of his administrative duties in order to focus on increasing the local’s membership, which by the end of the 1960s had grown to roughly 8,000.

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 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.[4]

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.” [5] 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 in Italian the minutes of Di Giovanni’s union trial. 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, Di Giovanni 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.

In the Summer of 1969, Stefanini replaced Gallagher as Local 183’s Business Manager, maintaining his position of Secretary-Treasurer. The founder, in turn, was given the largely ceremonial role of president. At this point, Gallagher’s health had began deteriorating and his role in Local 183 becoming less central. But while his body slowed him down, the Irishmen’s spirit remained defiant. By the late 1970s, Gallagher 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.”[6] Among the older members, especially the Irish, there were many who saw this transition of power as a coup, pointing to the unseemly removal of the Local 183’s founder from the centre of decision-making as evidence. This, however, is not the view of the Gallagher family, as expressed by his son Michael Gallagher: “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.” [7] For more see Gerry Gallagher’s bio.

With Stefanini at the helm, Local 183 would see tremendous growth. Its offices moved to a new and bigger location; computers were installed to better process its membership lists and administrative affairs; and new multilingual training programs were introduced for its members.


CONCRETE FORMING UNIONIZATION

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 20 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. [7]

Gerry Gallagher speaking to the media at Metro Toronto Police Headquarters. John Stefanini is leaning against the wall on the left. Photo by Richard Cole. March 6, 1969. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC58003.

Before he was replaced by Stefanini, 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. [8] 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.” [9] 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. [10] 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. 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, but also lowered their wages and benefits. 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.


THE WAISBERG COMMISSION

The following year, Zanini, who thought of Stefanini’s Local 183 as “a bunch of crooks” who tended to side with management against their own workers, started asking some of its members to sign statements that they were being cheated by their union. For this purpose, he set up a interviews with anonymous workers and one newspaper reporter in a cellar; that article was never published. Zanini also called for a workers rally in September 1972, where D’Alimonte was going to reveal publicly the threats and bribes that had led him to leave Local 1 in 1969, and how he had been instructed by a lawyer to sign the damning statement that Shulman had referred to at Queen’s Park.

Click on the image to access the report.

But less than two weeks prior to that meeting, Zanini was shot by two unknown assailants in the parking lot of his apartment building. Around the same time, two lathing company offices were destroyed by dynamite. Following these incidents, Shulman once again stood at the Queen’s Park Legislature, on December 5, 1972, and made allegations to the role of crime syndicates as well as the provincial government in enabling the unlawful activity of price-fixing among contractors, particularly in the lathing business. The resurgence of violence and Shulman’s allegations led the new Ontario Premier Bill Davis to launch yet another inquiry on March 28, 1973; the third since 1962. One of the key witnesses in Judge Harry Waisberg’s Royal Commission on Certain Sectors of the Building Industry was Simone, who agreed to testify about the industry’s illicit practices. Various union officials were subpoenaed to testify, including Zanini, Irvine, D’Alimonte, and Stefanini. The latter’s testimony highlighted the unsafe conditions, exploitation, and inequity that existed in the residential concrete forming sector, especially when compared with the commercial counterpart. According to Stefanini, by February 1974, his union had recovered at least $250,000 in wages owed by contractors. [11]

Waisberg’s conclusions were published in December 1974. In the end, the commission failed to be the comprehensive examination of the building industry’s operations that many had hoped for, and limited itself to confirming the presence of mob elements in it without offering any clear answers. It did, however, break the once indomitable spirits of Irvine and Zanini, who retired from the labour movement soon after.


CONSOLIDATING LOCAL 183

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 section is under construction]


References

[1] Kenneth Bagnell. Canadese. A Portrait of the Italian Canadians. Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1989: 168.
[2] Frank Drea, “Hundreds More Join Construction Strike,” Toronto Telegram, June 26, 1961.
[3] Bagnell, Canadese, 168.
[4] “Dismissal protested by Italian laborers.” Globe and Mail. April 15, 1968: 5.
[5] “Firing sparks’ laborers brawl.” Toronto Star. April 20, 1968: 4.
[6] Interview with Gerry Gallagher. © Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Irish Canadian Collection, 4 February 1978, IRI-04541-GAL.
[7] Interview with Michael Gallagher, April 24, 2018.
[8] “Threatening notes sent to contractor amid police charges.” Toronto Star, March 6, 1969: 1 & 4. “Mackey Follow,” CBC TV news clip, March 6, 1969.
[9] “The Day It Is,” CBC TV, June 3, 1969.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Michael Keating. “Wages held, work unsafe, probe told.” The Globe & Mail, February 7, 1974: 41.