Stefanini, John

StefaniniDate of birth: 1940
Place of birth: San Giovanni di Polcenigo, Pordenone province, Friuli region, Italy
Arrival in Canada: August, 1959
Affiliations: International Hod Carriers and Common Laborers’ Union Local 811; Brandon Union Group; Labourers’ International Union of North America’s Local 183

Giovanni (John) Carlo Stefanini was born in 1940, in San Giovanni di Polcenigo, a small rural town in the northwestern Italian region of Friuli. At age 11, Stefanini and his family moved to Rome, where he would attend vocational school and trained as an electrician. 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 Sergio (a small bricklayer subcontractor) and sister Franca in Toronto. In August 1959, at age 19, Stefanini fulfilled his wish of living in North America. Initially, his plans were to pursue a university education, so he enrolled in high school. At the end of his first school year, in the summer of 1960, his uncle, an organizer with the Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ Local 117-C, Angelo Burigana, found him a job as a hod carrier (plasterer helper) in an apartment building project in the northwest of Toronto. The tall and skinny Italian struggled with the heavy work but was not let go. Instead, his foreman had him sweep the fallen plaster off the floor. This was Stefanini’s first and only job as a construction worker, which he held for two weeks until he became a union organizer.


On August 1, 1960, Stefanini, like thousands of his countrymen in Toronto, were drawn to the Lansdowne Theatre to listen to the charismatic organizers Bruno Zanini and Charles Irvine, the founders of 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, Marino Toppan, Mike Hammang, Dino Di Danieli, and Mario Della Mora), the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Union Locals Local 117 and Local 117-C (led by Irvine , Tony Mariano, and Burigana), the Hod Carriers and Common Labourers International Union Local 811 (led by Zanini and, Nick GilenoGeorge Petta, and Kerry Tipple), and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America’s Local 1190 (led by Frank Colantonio). In all of them, Italian immigrants made up the overwhelming majority of the membership. Already motivated by their own personal experiences, the Hoggs Hollow tragedy, and the media’s vindication of their anger, the Italian workers in these packed halls were further energized by Zanini’s and Irvine’s charisma and dynamic style. One after another, these labour organizers prepared the men for action, who shouted back: “Sciopero! Sciopero!” (Strike! Strike!). The next morning, 1,000 workers gathered at the Lansdowne Theatre and organized themselves into “flying squads;” Stefanini being one of them. In their personal cars and on the backs of pick-up trucks, they traveled in large motorcades across residential construction sites in metropolitan Toronto’s sprawling suburbs. At each site they tried to stop the work, sometimes talking the workers into leaving, other times removing them by force. In some places, the strikers tore down walls, emptied cement bags, threw bricks and stones at fresh concrete, or at those workers who refused to walk out. Stefanini was hired as an organizer for Local 811 by Zanini, whom he had met through Sergio, his brother. Working day and night, making $80 a week, Stefanini claims to have signed up close to 2,000 members. [1]

Nearly all fifty-two high-rise apartment building projects in the city were stopped by this strike, which caused an estimated $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 signed on August 10 between the Bricklayers’ Local 40 and the Masonry Contractors Association, followed by the Carpenters’ Local 1190 and the Labourers’ Local 811. The Plasterers’ participation in the strike was in solidarity, since they had already signed 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 (45 for labourers), four per cent 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 the 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.


As he learned more about the Canadian labour movement, Stefanini grew increasingly critical of Irvine’s and Zanini’s tactics and leadership style, such as their illegal strikes, their unwillingness to negotiate with subcontractors, and casualness when it came to the union’s day-to-day operations. 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.”[2] In many ways, his lengthy career as a union leader was articulated in opposition to the maverick ways of the Brandon Union Group leaders. His very first disappointment came immediately after the end of the 1960 strike when Zanini replaced Stefanini, then Local 811’s secretary-treasurer, with his nephew who had never worked in construction. According to Stefanini, he complained to Irvine but the Scotsman sided with Zanini while offering the cautionary words: “Very well Bruno, do as you wish, but one day you will regret it.” [3]

Stefanini quickly found another job as an organizer with the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 183, then led by its founder Gerry Gallagher. The most active members of Local 183 at this point were the Irish, who were the largest workforce in subway tunnelling and road building. The union also represented the sewer and watermain sector, where the Italians predominated. The majority of these Italian workers spoke little English, which was a significant obstacle when it came to organize them. Gallagher saw in Stefanini a young, educated, bilingual speaker, who could help him communicate with the union’s fast expanding Italian membership. In the winter, when Stefanini started his organizing duties, the only sector in operation was sewer and watermain, since the underground water streams froze and made it easier to excavate. He visited the day labour pick-up spots in the city, especially near the Italian neighbourhood on St. Clair Avenue – see day labour pick-up spots map here – and wrote down the names and telephone numbers of those workers waiting to be picked up by the subcontractors. At night and during the weekends, he visited the homes of these men and convinced them, one by one, to sign a petition expressing their desire to unionize their workplace, which was a necessary step to achieve union certification in any given company.

The first company that Stefanini organized was the sewer and watermain contractor Aprile Construction Ltd. In his first certification hearing at the Ontario Labour Board, Stefanini was aided by the young lawyer Sydney Robins, who later became a Ontario Supreme Court Justice. For his second certification hearing, concerning Marino Construction, Robins was unable to attend and Stefanini had to do it alone. Despite his young age of 20 and having lived in Canada for only one year and a half, he was able to successfully argue his case and unionize the company.

Thanks to Stefanini’s organizing, the number of Italians in Local 183 grew. But they were initially reluctant to engage actively in the union, including participating in its monthly meetings at the Labor Temple on Spadina Avenue, which were dominated by the Irish members. Stefanini attended these meetings along with those of the Toronto Building Trades Council – the umbrella organization of various construction locals, especially those in the industrial, commercial, and institutional (ICI) sectors – who met every Thursday morning. He stood out in the latter, not just for his tall height, but because he was a young Italian in a room filled with veteran British-Canadian unionists. Stefanini befriended and took the opportunity to learn from these older anglophones. He became close with Local 183’s president Mike Reilly, an Irish immigrant and fellow Catholic, who invited Stefanini to become the godfather to his son. A major influence in Stefanini’s education as a trade unionists was Ed Boyer, a veteran of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (the predecessor of the NDP), a former carpenter, and a member of the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Starting in January 1961, three days a week, Boyer, who lived in Kitchener, stayed at Stefanini’s apartment in the attic of a house on Caledonia Road. During his stay, the eager student learned about Canadian labour history, laws, and management practices, including the importance of maintaining legal integrity. The lessons he learned from Boyer would contrast with the labour actions he experienced in the Brandon Union Group’s strike of 1961.


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.

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. Stefanini expressed his opposition to Zanini’s and Irvine’s illegal methods and program, and thought important for Local 183 to keep away, but still Gallagher asked him to help for the sake of the workers. [4] 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 international unions’ head 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 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 Builders Association, 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. But the most high profile arrest was Stefanini’s. On the early morning of June 1, him and Angelo Scoppelliti, a Local 183 organizer, drove down Dufferin Street to the spots where groups of workers waited to be picked up by employers. Their purpose was to discourage the men from going to work during the strike. After speaking with two workers near Rogers Road, four police cruises surrounded his vehicle and arrested Stefanini on obstruction charges. According to him, during the trial, on June 21, the police officer who arrested him stated that the young Italian organizer was leading a group of forty men and that he 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. [5] 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 months 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. Local 183 would hire the lawyer Arthur Maloney, then a Progressive Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament who later became Ontario’s first Ombudsman. Maloney was able to secure Stefanini’s release on bail. [6]

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. In Stefanini’s view, his harsh sentence was a payback for Irvine’s reversal. 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.”[7] At this rally, Gallagher spoke of Stefanini’s case and demanded his immediate release. 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. Other than the public inquiry, the only other gains were the reaffirmation of the Bricklayers’ Local 40’s previous agreement with the contractors and a Memorandum of Understanding with the other Brandon unions. After the initial hesitation, the 2,500 workers in the theatre finally erupted in cheers and carried Zanini and Irvine on their shoulders, happy that the strike was finally over.

Stefanini would split his sentence between Don Jail and the Guelph Reformatory. At the first, he was nearly assaulted by another inmate until a fellow Italian intervened and ordered that Stefanini be left alone. This man was Johnny Papalia, the leader of one of the most notorious Italian-Canadian organized crime families in Hamilton, who recognized Stefanini from the Toronto Telegram’s news story about his sentence. Later, in Guelph, Stefanini 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 more disdainful of Zanini and Irvine, whose aggressive tactics had cost Stefanini three months of his youth “for absolutely nothing.”[8] 

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


After his release from prison, Stefanini continued to work as an organizer for the Laborers’ Local 183. Having earned considerable experience and unionist credentials in the 1960 and 1961 strikes, the young Stefanini continued to learn about trade unionism from Gallagher, 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 episodes one, three and four of our documentary series.

Stefanini’s influence within Local 183 grew in the mid-1960s, along with its membership, the majority of whom were now Italian immigrants. In 1963 he joined the union’s executive board as its recording secretary, becoming 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. He had his first taste of what the future held in March 1964. That month, Local 183 went on its first full strike, together with the Operating Engineers Local 793 and the Teamsters Local 230, to demand higher wages from excavation contractors in the sewer and watermain and subway building fields. Stefanini, then 23-years-old, was thrust into leading the strike, given the fact that Gallagher was in the hospital and Reilly was away at Harvard University. Local 793’s business manager Herb Ingham, who led the negotiations, placed Stefanini in charge of the section of the agreement that pertained to tunnel work. Knowing very little about tunneling, Stefanini counselled with one of his organizers, Jack Dillon, who told him about the various job classifications in tunneling, including heavy machine operators (i.e. shield drivers). Stefanini wrote them all into the agreement under Local 183’s jurisdiction, which the employer agreed to. Shortly after the negotiations ended, Ingham called off the agreement once he learned that Stefanini had claimed workers that he believed fell under Local 793’s jurisdiction. The parties involved agreed to refer the matter to the Washington offices of each union, which in the end decided to leave the classifications as they were in the agreement. Toronto then became the only jurisdiction in North America where every worker below the manhole cover of the shaft belonged to a single union. Listen to Stefanini talk about this round of negotiations.

See JohnnieIn 1966 Stefanini became Local 183’s secretary-treasurer, the union’s second highest office. But he did not stop organizing workers. One of the companies he personally organized was the heavy construction contractor Armstrong Brothers, which employed 250 workers. After signing the majority of its labourers and obtaining certification, the company dared Stefanini to either sign up all of its workers, including machine operators, or get nothing. This meant infringing on the Operating Engineers’ Local 793 jurisdiction, with whom Local 183 enjoyed good relations. So Stefanini made a deal with Local 793 by which they allowed him to sign the machine operators under Local 183 in return for the monthly dues paid by these workers. The deal worked well until 1967, when the Operating Engineers signed their own collective agreement with heavy construction contractors, including Armstrong. On May 12, Local 183 decided to go on strike, alone. They were prompted by the fact the contractors offered them a much lower wage rate than the trade unions. Once again, Gallagher was in the hospital, which left Stefanini at the helm. The labour dispute ended on July 10 when the union ratified a new collective agreement.

Listen to Stefanini talk about the Armstrong Brothers agreement and the 1967 strike and the lawful methods used in it.

Stefanini learned the importance of job classifications from this experience and from then on made sure to include as many as possible in Local 183’s collective agreements so to include its jurisdiction. This also meant finding creative ways to skirt another union’s jurisdiction by coming up with slightly modified classifications. This was the case again when Armstrong Brothers asked Local 183 for carpenters to work on a water reservoir project on Finch Avenue and Dufferin Street. The union had none, since they belong to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. But they had form setters who built the wooden structures for the manhole covers and were essentially semi-skilled carpenters except for the classification. So Stefanini sent those and the company superintendent quickly adapted them to job. Other heavy contractors followed and soon Local 183 was sending “form setters” to do carpentry work on highway bridges and retaining walls.  Listen to Stefanini discuss the use of Local 183’s form setters as de facto carpenters

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. [9]

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.” [10] 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. Listen to Stefanini’s views on ethnic relations within Local 183.

According to Stefanini, he had been the de facto business manager of Local 183 for years before he was officially given the title by Gallagher in 1969.  The founder, in turn, took on the largely ceremonial role of president, or as Stefanini put it “business-manager emeritus.” Listen to Stefanini discuss the transition of power at Local 183

Stefanini’s business-like style differed significantly from Gallagher’s activist approach, as reflected in a text that new business manager wrote in a Local 183 brochure in 1979:

The Trade Union movement was born in an adversary system. This does not mean that it must stay that way forever… The evolution of this kind of constructive working relationship is not possible without sincere efforts on the part of both Union and Employer. Each group must overcome a built-in mistrust of the other’s intentions. There has to be a coming of age. After hitting each other repeatedly over the head, our Neanderthal ancestors had to find a more sensible way of doing business. Warfare is a losing game, for the only ones who benefit from fixed, entrenched positions are the mercenaries. Bridges must be built, barriers must come down, the way must be found to a more harmonious worker/employer relationship. [11]
John Stefanini addressing his union members outside the Local 183 office on St. Clair. Photo by Mike Popovich. February 12, 1970. Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University Libraries, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC49151

Throughout his career, Stefanini would be accused by union members, including fellow Italians, of being too friendly towards employers, sometimes at the expense of the workers. A view that was shared by his predecessor. By the late 1970s, Gallagher’s role in Local 183’s executive had become largely peripheral. But while his body slowed him down, his spirit remained defiant. Interviewed on February 4, 1978, a frustrated 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.” [12] 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.” [13] For more see Gerry Gallagher’s bio.


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, especially flying form – see text box on the right for more. In the residential sector, Nick Di Lorenzo was the dominant contractor in this fast growing field. Besides importing the cranes from Europe that made flying-form possible, Di Lorenzo’s cost-cutting innovations included the creation of “composite crews.” 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 “composite crew” cut labour costs significantly since it replaced five unionized crafts. This was directly opposed to the segmented way in which the construction labour market and its unions traditionally operated, where jurisdictional boundaries were defined by craft. Another reason why Di Lorenzo was able to dominate 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 1979, at least twenty-seven people lost their lives in apartment building construction projects in metropolitan Toronto, of which at least five were employed by Di Lorenzo. Keeping unions out of his companies was essential for Di Lorenzo’s business model. Besides deploying unethical yet legal techniques like changing his companies’ names so to make them difficult to certify, Di Lorenzo’s union-busting and business competition also allegedly involved illegal tactics enforced by the private investigator Norman Menezes. According to Menezes, his sinister 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), most of them Italian immigrants.

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 (Local 506), 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 organization 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 secretly 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.

Listen to Stefanini’s views on Gus Simone

The biggest hurdle for Simone was Di Lorenzo. Without his signature, it would have been foolish for his smaller business rivals to sign a collective agreement that would increase 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, which meant no strikes during that period, and froze wages. Not only did Di Lorenzo agree, he assigned his public relations officer George Orla and his 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. The remaining workers soon followed. Once Di Lorenzo was on board, the other contractors felt more at ease. On November 4, 1968, the purposely-founded Forming Contractors Association, representing nearly all contractors in the field, signed Local 562’s collective agreement. 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 and its friendly union: 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 the agreement was voided. At this time, the CFTU allegedly offered to pay for Simone’s organizing expenses if he agreed to transfer the workers to them, which the Local 562 boss 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, Zanini, and Di Lorenzo, whose projects and workers were not attacked. 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 attacks and referred to the “criminals” running the Lathers’ Local 562. However, he presented no evidence to corroborate these claims. This provoked a backlash from the Toronto Building Trades Council, which called for Mackey to either lay charges or resign for having “smeared the whole labor movement.” About twenty Local 183 members picketed the Toronto police headquarters the next day until Gallagher was granted a meeting with Mackey to talk about the allegations. Gallagher left that meeting satisfied after Mackey told the press that Local 183 was not the target of his accusations. [14]

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.

At this point, Stefanini and Gallagher set in motion a plan to take over the Lathers Local 562’s concrete forming division, which represented about 2,500 workers. “Aware of all of this, I made a grand entrance,” Stefanini later recalled. “Why did I do it?… [M]y dream was to build a big strong union… I understood the stronger and bigger was the union, the better services I could provide to the members… [In order to hire] people who specialized in [Workman] Compensation problems, unemployment insurance problems, citizenship problems, expand the pension and other things… you need numbers.” [15] First, the Laborers’ International transferred jurisdiction over 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 to offset the costs of organizing them 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 to keep control of their division’s finances, but were refused. [16] Another meeting was held in Chicago on May 23, 1969, that brought together Stefanini, Simone, the president of the Lathers’ International, the forming contractors Di Lorenzo and Vlahos, and a group of lawyers. The Lathers’ International agreed to give up Local 562’s forming division and let Local 183 hire Simone’s organizers, including Zanini, with the purpose of launching their own organization. According to some, Di Lorenzo asked for a $2 million loan from the Laborers’ as a condition to accepting this deal. Whether that request was met or not is unknown. [17]

Left out of that meeting was Zanini, who pretended to know nothing about it when Stefanini followed up with him upon returning from Chicago. On June 1, 1969, Zanini and Simone called a meeting at Lansdowne Theatre, where Gallagher and Stefanini believed they would be presenting themselves to Local 562’s forming workers, until they were barred from entering the theatre. Inside, Zanini, with Simone sitting at his side, told the men that they had been “sold like cattle” in Chicago and that his organizers “wanted no part of the Laborers.” [18] The 1,400 workers inside voted in favour of creating an independent Canadian union that they called the Concrete Forming Workers Union (CFWU) Local 1. Zanini became its president, D’Alimonte the vice-president, and Enzo Ragno (a former Laborers’ Local 506 organizer) the secretary-treasurer. The next day, Local 1’s workers walked out of apartment building sites across metropolitan Toronto. A few days later, the contractors capitulated and agreed to Local 1’s demands at a meeting held at the York Centre Ballroom; including Di Lorenzo, whose companies employed about 1,000 of the CFWU’s 1,700 members.

This became national news once the CBC’s journalist Ed Cosgrove started reporting on it. Zanini framed the story as a battle between international (or American) and Canadian unions, which was a narrative that fit a larger and older discussion in the Canadian labour movement and drew support from other national unions like the Canadian Union of Public Employees. At the same time, in a panel discussion with the CBC’s news talk show host Warren Davis, Zanini confessed that the problem was not so much being part of an international union, as we would have liked to stay with Local 562. The real issue was his resentment of being told by Washington that he had to surrender the workers he had organized to the Laborers. Another guest at this TV panel was Simone, who supported Zanini’s claim that the Lathers’ (his union) and Laborers’ internationals had no qualms about transferring the workers without first asking them what they wanted – a democratic consideration that Simone did not abide by in his own union leadership. Interviewed for that same show, Gallagher speculated that Zanini was simply trying to use the workers to get a better deal for himself and pointed to Local 562’s earlier “sweetheart deal” as evidence. [19] However, unlike Simone’s “sweetheart” approach, Zanini’s confrontational tactics won increases in wages, vacation pay, and benefits for his forming workers over a three-year contract.

Stefanini decided to join the CFTU at this point, which was then led by Tony Michael of the Iron Workers Local 721. Together with the other international unions of the Toronto Building Trades Council, they launched a campaign against Zanini’s independent local that included pulling their members from jobs that employed Local 1’s men as well as boycotting ready-mix cement. Irvine’s Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’, and Simone’s Lathers’ locals resisted this incursion and told their men to cross the Council’s picket lines. The Teamsters’ Local 230, which represented about 850 cement truck drivers, were asked by the Council to honour their picket lines and boycott non-cooperative concrete forming contractors and ready-mix concrete suppliers. However, Teamsters drivers either did not receive or did not follow the instructions from their executive and continued to deliver cement mix around the city’s many residential construction sites. This led to various confrontations between supposedly allied unions.

That was the case on August 27, 1969, when forty members of the Forming Council unions, led by Local 183’s Michael Reilly, picketed the ready-mix cement supplier Teskey Ready Mix Ltd., located in North York, as a way of protesting the Teamsters’ lack of solidarity. This time, the truck drivers refused to cross the picket line. Frustrated with this illegal work stoppage, the company’s president George Teskey tried to drive one of his trucks through the line and hit one of the Council’s picketers who refused to move. Enraged, the strikers dragged Teskey out of his truck and came close to beating him, if not for the quick intervention of his Teamster employees. The two sides nearly got into a physical altercation before Toronto’s Police riot squad intervened. By the second week of September, eight contractors filed injunctions against the illegal labour action, which ended the Teamsters’ Local 230’s work stoppage. After that, its members exercised their individual right not to cross the picket lines that had been legally set up by other Council unions in apartment building projects. 

Tensions were once again high on September 11, outside the York Centre Ballroom on Vaughan Road, when 300 members of Zanini’s independent union, transported by Di Lorenzo’s company buses, tried to invade the strike headquarters of the Operating Engineers’ Local 793 – a Forming Council member. For nearly two hours, the two sides shouted at each other from across the narrow street, until they dispersed.

On September 17, 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. These 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. One important aspect of this agreement was that it included an “owner-builder” clause, which allowed for developers building commercial projects on land that they owned to hire lower-paid workers from residential sector unions. This benefitted a small group of apartment building contractors, since they could underbid commercial contractors – this clause was removed in 1974.

The developers’ refusal to include concrete forming in this agreement was hailed as a victory by Zanini, whose small independent union withstood a lengthy and well-funded assault by the international unions. 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 like all of Zanini’s victories, this too was short-lived. The Ontario Labour Relations Board refused to certify his union’s right to bargain, since it didn’t represent the majority of forming workers as required by law.

Running out of options, in March 1970, Zanini took his forming workers to the Canadian Union of Construction Workers Local 1, another independent yet certified union led by John Meiorin. Despite the support from his fellow Friulani, Zanini’s forming division continued to struggle financially and his members became increasingly restless. Still, for the first time in his troubled career, Zanini was able to bargain with contractors without having to go on strike, until the Fall of 1970. While Zanini was in negotiations with one of the largest forming contractors in Toronto, the former Chief Coroner and now Member of Provincial Parliament with the NDP Morton Shulman, speaking under the immunity provided by the Legislative Chamber, accused the Italian organizer of being involved with known Mafia elements from Hamilton. These allegations tarnished Zanini’s already sullen reputation and scared away contractors from any bargaining table where he sat. Once again, Irvine emerged from the shadows and offered to take Zanini and his men under a newly created Plasterers’ Local 733. The now 50-year-old Italian-Canadian organizer accepted his older ally’s call to arms and gave it another shot at securing a contract for his loyal followers. In the spring of 1971, the maverick duo was back. In response, the Building Trades Council expelled the four Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ locals from its organization. Alex Main, the Council’s business manager, declared “open war” on Irvine, whom he accused of being a “dictator” who sought to “set up a new empire” in the residential sector in order to push out drywall. Main also sought to discredit Irvine in the eyes of Italian workers by pointing to an Ontario Labor Board decision concerning negotiations with a contractor in Windsor, in 1960, where the Scotsman had imposed on that company not to have more than 50% of its workforce be of Italian origin. The many public blows took their toll on Irvine and Zanini, who failed to generate significant momentum after a few poorly attended meetings. Their once loyal Italian workforce had become distrustful of their once charismatic leaders and their maverick tactics. In part, this was because other more established and stable unions had opened their doors to immigrant workers. Especially, the fast-expanding Laborers’ Local 183, whose young Italian-Canadian leader was proving to be a formidable strategist.

On July 30, 1971, Local 183 split from the CFTU and started organizing forming workers on their own. Listen to Stefanini explain why he decided to leave the Council of Forming Trade Unions

With Zanini’s Local 1’s collective agreement being considered illegal, Stefanini send out his organizers to sign up every forming worker one by one, while he met with the contractors. “Look, we have to put, stop to this mess.” he told them. “If we have a fair playing field everybody will [do] the job on a fair basis. Right now we don’t know what one pays, what doesn’t pay.” [20] According to Stefanini, the contractors trusted him and allowed him to organize their men without opposition. He also benefited from intelligence provided by some developers, likely the Del Zottos, with whom Stefanini had a friendly relationship. Luck also played a role in Local 183’s success, as when Max Merkur, the owner of Meridian Property Mgt., asked to meet with Stefanini. It turned out, Local 183’s organizers had signed up some of Meridian’s employees thinking they were forming workers. When asked why, Stefanini responded that he did not know Meridian, despite it being the second largest developer in Toronto at the time. Merkur explained that they were a builder and gave Stefanini a quick lesson about who the other major apartment builders were. Then the Jewish developer told Stefanini that he was not opposed to unions, but did not want to be the only builder to be organized. So he proposed to the Local 183 leader that he go organize the others. Stefanini did as suggested and met with the Belmont Construction Co., Cadillac Contracting & Developments, Del Zotto Enterprises, and Greenwin Construction.

Founded by Elvio, Angelo, and Leo, the sons of an Italian bricklayer who immigrated to Canada in 1927, Del Zotto Enterprises was one of largest development corporations in Canada, which would later become Tridel. The three brothers operated more than ninety companies in various sectors, with major holdings in Canada, the U.S., and the Bahamas. Unlike most builders, the Del Zottos did much of their own construction through various contracting firms they owned, including concrete forming. Being a friend of Stefanini, whom he trusted, Elvio did not oppose him organizing his companies. As for Greenwin, its owner Harold Green invited Stefanini for breakfast at Bagel World, on Wilson and Bathurst avenues. Green, who according to Stefanini had the reputation of being “very tough, very mean,” asked him: “Who is calling the shots at 183? Is it Gallagher?” The Italian reassured the Jewish developer that he had both title and the full authority of business manager, and that it was him who made the decisions. As Stefanini later recalled: “Gerry had the reputation of closing jobs down for safety and the builders did not like that.” He continued:

See, at that time, a lot of people thought I had the title but who really was calling the show was Reilly or Gallagher. I was completely underestimated, which was very good… They don’t watch your moves. They look at somebody else. [21]

After this, Green set up a meeting with Cadillac Fairview, who again told Stefanini that they were not against “honest” unions and wanted to put an end to the problems in the residential construction sector. They invited him to organize their companies, so he did. Another possible reason why the apartment developers were so keen to welcome Local 183 was the fact that the labourers’ wages were lower than those of the CFTU’s five crafts. Within a short time, Local 183 certified the five largest apartment builders in Toronto and negotiated a collective agreement. Including in that contract was “subcontractor clause” that established that all forming contractors and subcontractors hired in these developers’ projects, which amounted to thousands of workers, were beholden to the agreement and therefore unionized by Local 183. As Stefanini put it: “Having the subcontractor clause with the builders worked like locking the industry for [Local] 183. The builders are the source. If you control the source, you control everything else.” The agreement was signed on September 7, 1971. [22]

As Zanini later told the journalist Catherine Wismer, in the summer of that year, the Plasterers’ and the Laborers’ international executives had met 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. Other forming contractors who had signed with the CFTU changed company names in order to get out of their previous agreement with its higher wages and signed with Local 183 in order to remain competitive. Zanini also stated that Stefanini then re-used the “owner-builder” clause that had originally been written onto the CFTU agreement with the developers in 1969 and started offering his lower paid forming workers to commercial sector projects. [23]

For more on the organization of residential concrete forming workers and the labour battles that ensued watch the third episode of our documentary series, featuring our interview with John Stefanini.


The following year, Zanini, who thought of Stefanini’s Local 183 as “a bunch of crooks” that 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 interviews with anonymous workers and one newspaper reporter in a cellar – the resulting 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 ICI. In Stefanini’s eyes, “the commission really was a blessing in disguise.” First because it cleared Local 183 of any wrongdoing after investigating its records. Second, because it allowed him to put forward various policy recommendations. One of the recommendations in Local 183’s brief, which was inspired by Australian labour laws, called for the the settlement of grievances to be done through the Ontario Labour Board instead of the traditional courts, where the process could take years to resolve and cost a great deal of money. Judge Waisberg, who was a labour-management arbitrator in Sudbury, supported this idea, which was later implemented by the Ontario government. “This brought a lot of peace in the industry,” Stefanini later recalled. [24]

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.

For more on the infiltration of organized crime in Toronto’s construction industry and the Waisberg Commission see Gus Simone’s and Bruno Zanini’s bios or watch the fourth episode of our documentary series, featuring our interview with John Stefanini.


The first agreement signed between Local 183 and the apartment builders only dealt with high rise projects. In the next round of bargaining, Stefanini went after low-rise apartments. Some of the high rise developers, like Cadillac Fairview and Bramalea Consolidated Development Ltd., were also house builders, also called “stick housing.” In response to Stefanini’s demands, they agreed to include low-rise apartments in their new contract if he organize house building contractors, where there was a still a large number of non-unionized companies. The Local 183 leader accepted the challenge and send out his organizers to sign up these residential workers. One of the fields that they organized was concrete and drain.

[This section is under construction]

1979 Local 183 brochure backcover“A NEW BRAND OF UNIONISM”

As described in a Local 183’s membership brochure of 1979: “John Stefanini is a believer in a new brand of unionism, one that concerns itself with its members both on and off the job. He believes the Local Union should play an active part in community life and have a strong voice in the political and social issues of the day.” [25] The large expansion of Local 183’s membership services, benefits, and community outreach throughout the 1970s supports this statement.

In 1971, the Laborers’ International created a Pension Fund of Central and Eastern Canada, which covered all of its locals in Ontario and parts of the Maritime provinces. By 1979, the fund had grown to $38 million and paid out over $700,000 annually to 646 pensioners and beneficiaries. One of the main contributors to this fund were Local 183, whose membership grew well above the other Laborers’ locals. That same year, Local 183 established its own Benefit Trust Fund, following new agreements with road building, apartment building, sewer and watermain, concrete forming, and utilities contractors that secured a $0.05 hourly contributions from employers. This welfare plan was initially limited to providing life insurance and covering major medical expenses, but by the end of the decade it expanded to offer support with long-term disability, vision care, hearings aids, dental benefits, and weekly indemnity. These new welfare benefits and pension funds came at the best possible time for Local 183 members, which were now better prepared to face the oil crisis of 1973-74 that affected most economic sectors in Canada and gave rise to soaring inflation and high rates of unemployment. Recognizing the need of its members to access government services, a process often made difficult by the language or educational limitations of its immigrant workers, Stefanini set up a Social Services Department in 1973. Marino Toppan was one of the first social service agents hired by Stefanini, tasked with helping Local 183 members deal with paperwork for the Workman’s Compensation Board, Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, OHIP, among other services.

Despite the economic downturn, Local 183 continued to expand. To accommodate this growth, Stefanini and his executive decided to build a larger office. In 1975, they moved from their previous three-room headquarters on St. Clair Avenue to a newly built two-storey, 1,500 sq. meters facility on Dupont Avenue and Dufferin Street. When it was inaugurated, Local 183 Unity Hall was the largest union headquarters in Canada. Stefanini also equipped the new modern office with a computer system that streamlined the accounting of each member’s work hours and the subsequent dispatching of work. [19] That year, the union also established an industrial division, after it organized building superintendents, maintenance, and janitorial workers hired by the companies affiliated with the Property Management Services Organization.

Local 183 credit union founders
“Labourers’ International Union of North America Local 183.” Brochure. March 8, 1979: 97.

In 1977, Local 183 launched a Training and Rehabilitation Trust Fund, after it was able to negotiate an employer contribution with the Metropolitan Toronto Apartment Builders Association. The concrete forming, house basement, heavy construction, sewer and watermain, road building, and utilities contractor associations soon followed with their own contributions. The first executive director of this training fund was Giuseppe (Joseph) Carraro, the co-founder of the Centro Organizzativo Scuole Tecniche Italiane (COSTI). The first training courses were dedicated to reinforced steel placing and basic form building. This program also sought to rehabilitate injured workers by training them to do light work in building maintenance. That year, Local 183 also founded its own credit union, spearheaded by thirty of its members, with the purpose of offering credit to the local’s membership at low interest rates.

In 1979, Local 183 opened its own dental clinic with eight operatories, serving its members and their families free of charge (except for some procedures). The clinic was inaugurated at the same time as Local 183’s new Training Centre, built on a former factory adjacent to its Unity Hall on 1136 Dupont Street and named after his recently deceased founder Gerry Gallagher. The spacious centre allowed instructors to simulate conditions in a construction worksite as well as teach in classroom settings, where workers could develop new skills through practice and and theory. [26]


#37 1-2 1979 01 31 Comunidade - Fernada Gaspar of Comunidade meeting with Local 183
(Left to right) Tony Dionisio, Victor Barreiras, António Lucas, John Stefanini, Fátima Gaspar (reporter), and Marino Toppan. “Local 183 Tenta Interessar os Sócios Portugueses.” Comunidade newspaper, January 31, 1979: 1.

By 1979, Local 183 had grown to about 6,700 members distributed across multiple fields, including concrete forming, apartment and house building, concrete and drain, house basement construction, waterproofing, ICI floor finishing (about 3,000 workers, employed by 216 contractors, covered by six collective agreements); subway, roads, sewer and watermain, pipelines, Ontario Hydro, utilities, landscaping, fencing, tunneling and heavy construction (about 3,000 workers, employed by 168 contractors, covered by nine collective agreements); and building and factory maintenance (700 members covered by sixty-eight collective agreements). At this point, about half of the membership was Italian, the Portuguese represented about thirty-five percent, and the Irish and other ethnic groups about fifteen per cent. [27] Still, the majority of the union’s officials remained Italian and Irish. The first three Portuguese immigrants to join Local 183’s staff were António Lucas, Victor Barreiras, and Stefanini’s future successor António Dionisio.

In the 1980s, that ethnic group became the dominant workforce in metropolitan Toronto construction.

[This section is under construction]

Building 183 was like a bricklayer putting one brick on top of the other… signing up one man, one worker after the other. Not by mass organizing the way of Charlie Irvine and Bruno Zanini… [Their] way was like building a castle in the sand. [28]




[1] Giancarlo Stefanini. Strike! La Storia di Un Italiano in Canada. Roma: Edizioni Lavoro, 2014: 19.
[2] Kenneth Bagnell. Canadese. A Portrait of the Italian Canadians. Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1989: 168.
[3] Stefanini. Strike!, 20 (my translation).
[4] Stefanini, Strike!, 27.
[5] Stefanini, Strike!, 31.
[6] Stefanini, Strike!, 31.
[7] Frank Drea, “Hundreds More Join Construction Strike,” Toronto Telegram, June 26, 1961.
[8] Stefanini, Strike!, 30. Bagnell, Canadese, 168.
[9] “Dismissal protested by Italian laborers.” Globe and Mail. April 15, 1968: 5.
[10] “Firing sparks’ laborers brawl.” Toronto Star. April 20, 1968: 4.
[11] “Labourers’ International Union of North America Local 183.” Brochure. March 8, 1979: 101.
[12] Interview with Gerry Gallagher. © Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Irish Canadian Collection, 4 February 1978, IRI-04541-GAL.
[13] Interview with Michael Gallagher, April 24, 2018.
[14] “Threatening notes sent to contractor amid police charges.” Toronto Star, March 6, 1969: 1 & 4. “Mackey Follow,” CBC TV news clip, March 6, 1969.
[15] Interview with John Stefanini, February 27 and March 8, 2019
[16] “The Day It Is,” CBC TV, June 3, 1969.
[17] Catherine Wismer. Sweethearts. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 191.
[18] “The Day It Is,” CBC TV, June 3, 1969.
[19] Michael Keating. “Wages held, work unsafe, probe told.” The Globe & Mail, February 7, 1974: 41.
[20] Interview with Stefanini.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Wismer. Sweetehearts, 205-6.
[24] Interview with Stefanini.
[25] Stefanini, Strike!, 83.
[26] “Labourers.” Brochure: 67, 73, 75, 77, 83, 85, 87, 91, 93, 95.
[27] Ibid. “Local 183 Tenta Interessar os Sócios Portugueses.” Comunidade newspaper, January 31, 1979: 1, 6-7.
[28] Interview with Stefanini.