Zanini, Bruno

Zanini collageBirth and death: 1921-2009
Place of birth: Friuli region, Italy
Arrival in Canada: 1929
Affiliations: Bricklayers’, Masons’ and Plasterers’ International Union Locals 2, 35, 40; Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Union Locals 117, 733; Brandon Union Group; Wood and Metal Lathers’ International Union Local 562; Canadian Forming Workers Union Local 1


Giobatte Zanini, Bruno’s father, migrated to Canada in the 1920s, where he found work as a bricklayer. When Bruno turned eight years old, him, his mother, and six siblings reunited with his father in Toronto, settling in a house on Millicent Avenue. Like many working class immigrant boys growing up in what was then an economically depressed, staunchly conservative, and aggressively chauvinistic British Protestant city, Bruno had a rough upbringing, steeped in gang culture, street fights, and petty crimes. He was arrested for the first time in 1933 at age twelve. He would follow this with eight more charges for breaking and entering, theft, and vagrancy, until he was finally sent to a Guelph reformatory for delinquent youth in 1938. After his release, Bruno followed on the footsteps of his then deceased father and found a job as a bricklayer. But only a few months later, he got in trouble with the law again, this time landing him in jail for two years. Despite his education on Toronto’s rough street culture, Bruno had an appreciation for the lyricism of his Italian heritage and dreamed of becoming an opera singer in his homeland. For some time he managed to conciliate his two sides by taking up singing lessons while carrying on with his criminal activity. The latter would lead him to the Kingston Penitentiary in 1942, where he served a two-year sentence. While there, Bruno continued practicing his vocals, often singing for his cellmates at night. After serving this sentence, Bruno would return to the penitentiary in 1947 for twenty months, that time for accepting stolen property during a card game. Hoping to leave his rough life behind him, Bruno left for Genoa, Italy, in 1949, to pursue his opera-singing dreams. But he had no success. Two years later he returned to Toronto and to bricklaying, where he worked side-by-side with a growing number of Italian newcomers.



New immigrant workers arriving in Toronto after the Second World War found plenty of jobs in the suburban housing and high rise apartment building boom. One of the largest working-class immigrant groups to arrive during this period were the Italians. By the end of the 1970s, over 495,000 Italian immigrants had arrived in Canada since the end of the war; about half of those coming in the 1950s alone as “bulk order” migrant workers. The majority of them settled in Toronto’s metropolitan area, where over 271,000 ethnic Italians lived by 1971. About 37% of Toronto’s Italian population worked in the construction industry in 1961. Other prominent immigrant groups in this industry in the postwar period were the Irish and Portuguese. The majority of these workers came from impoverished rural regions in their home countries, where formal education was limited, unemployment was high, and the future was bleak. Like his fellow Italians, Zanini faced a great deal of exploitation and discrimination in the non-unionized residential construction sector, where non-British workers were concentrated. But unlike newcomers, Zanini spoke English, knew how to navigate Canadian society, and had greater awareness of his rights as a worker. Still, when he tried to join the Bricklayers, Masons and Plasterers International Union Local 2 he was refused. As he later recalled:

They refused hundreds and hundreds of people. I didn’t know if it was prejudice or not but the men were bitter. We all wanted to join but somehow, the unions didn’t want us Italians there. It was like a private club. See, if you were Anglo-Saxon or from the British Isles, well, that was different. You got in. [1]

Contractors_sub-contractors_ownersThose Italian, Portuguese, and other immigrant men coming from rural contexts, where seasonal, outdoor, manual labour was common, were willing to make temporary sacrifices for the benefit of themselves and their families back home, where they hoped to return one day. With a sojourner (temporary migrant worker) mindset at first, these workers were willing to withstand short-term physical, mental, and emotional hardship, believing that this was the price to pay for securing a better life in their home countries. Combined with their lack of English skills and familiarity with Canadian laws, their low rates of formal education, and their fear of deportation, these migrant workers were highly vulnerable to exploitation. Another factor contributing to their plight were the mainstream unions’ neglect and discrimination, where nativist views about “foreigners” depressing wages and working conditions predominated. Unlike the residential sector, workers in commercial and some industrial construction were represented by the Toronto Building Trades Council’s unions, whose members were largely British. Meanwhile, in the rapidly growing residential sector, developers had free reign to engage in unethical and illegal practices. The most harmful of their actions was creating the conditions for an over-supply of (sub)contractors, then play them against each other, thus prompting bidding races to the bottom.

ASC53029In turn, (sub)contractors hoping to secure projects and avoid going out of business made unrealistically low bids, which they honoured by offering marginal wages; not paying overtime, benefits, or statutory vacation pay; taking “kick-backs;” or simply not paying wages at all. Often, small contracting firms issued pay-cheques without coverage then disappeared before the workers could find them. To avoid financial troubles, these (sub)contractors declared bankruptcy, changed their company names, and were back in business the next day. In short, immigrant residential construction workers were exploited, overworked, disrespected, and treated like a disposable workforce, as the high number of construction accidents and fatalities in this sector attest to. In the vaunted march of Canadian progress, non-British immigrant workers were treated as inferior brutes, whose lives were cheap and dispensable, as reflected in the many broken bodies and families of loved ones who died working under terrible conditions. Zanini would later refer to this reality as “the jungle”:

What is a jungle? If you walk for two feet, the lion eats you. The whole thing was wrong! Safety – forget it! Don’t even talk about it. The scaffolding, the shoring, if those things caved in on you – you’ve had it! I don’t know how the hell to put it fancy. Nobody cared. The pay was what you could get. And who could they complain to? They were afraid: afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of being deported – and you’d better believe that! [2]


International-OLRB-Flying SquadsTrillo headline 2On October 21, 1955, Gerrada Trillo, a 35-year old Italian immigrant woman married to a bricklayer,  with whom she had three children, was arrested with her husband for shoplifting $10-worth of merchandise in a downtown department store. At the police station on 21 Claremont Street, the couple was separated and Gerrada was placed in a holding cell, alone. Unable to speak English, Gerrada may have thought that she was being deported. After her cries for help went unattended, she hung herself with a makeshift rope made with bedsheets. The press exposed the Trillo’s tragic story and focused on the hardships facing this immigrant family, whose husband, Benvenuto, made only $28 a week working as a construction worker. Toronto’s Italian community pooled funds and other donations to help the surviving Trillos. This story, which was covered in Toronto’s press, moved Zanini, who decided at that point to organize Italian workers in residential construction, a sector that had long been ignored by the international unions. With the help of his fellow Friulani Marino Toppan, Zanini approached workers at popular eateries, pool halls, and cafés, and in construction sites in the suburbs, where, trowel in hand, he spoke to them in his mixture of broken Italian and English. By 1957, he was holding meetings at the Italo Canadian Recreation Club on 33 Brandon Avenue, where hundreds of Italian construction workers would call themselves a union and acclaim Zanini as their leader. After this, he asked the Bricklayers’ International office in Washington for a union charter, which they agreed to. This was the first residential construction local in Toronto. That year, the newly founded Local 35 signed up over 1,500 members along with a collective agreement with the purposefully created Masonry Contractors Association. However, the Bricklayers commercial Local 2, led by William (Bill) Jenovese, criticized Washington’s decision to split its jurisdiction and threatened to pull from the international union if they did not reverse it. In response, the Washington executive merged the two locals, under which Zanini was hired as a business agent. After this, Jenovese continued to neglect his residential bricklayers, essentially boycotting Zanini’s organizing efforts.


Around this time, the Glasgow-born Charles Irvine, Vice-President for Canada of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Union, began organizing a residential local in Toronto. After overhearing a conversation between Irvine and Jenovese – who opposed the Plasterers’ residential union drive – Zanini was impressed by the Scotsman’s combative attitude and proactive organizing, and offered to help him. Irvine, in turn, was drawn to Zanini’s streetwise charisma and, more importantly, his rapport with the rapidly growing Italian workforce. In the days following this first meeting, the Scottish-Italian duo organized 800 residential plasterers and cement finishers as Local 117 and Local 117-C, the later led by Tony Mariano and Angelo Burigana. In early September 1957, they led a six-day illegal strike, where Irvine’s aggressive tactics were on display. “Flying squads” transported picketers from site to site, where they often caused havoc by destroying machinery and walls with bats, bricks, and buckets of lime.

1957 Local 117 founding
Founding meeting of the Plasterers Locals 177 and 177-C at Brandon Hall. September 1957. Archives of Ontario, Charles Irvine fonds C331-6.

In less than a week, they secured the first collective agreement in Metro Toronto’s residential construction sector, which included a forty-hour week, welfare benefits, and an hourly wage increase from $1.75 to $2.68. Their swift success raised eyebrows across the industry, especially among the other residential trades, where workers and organizers were inspired to follow the Plasterers’ example. This was the case with Frank Colantonio‘s United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 1190, which launched a strike that same year. However, the Plasterers’ victory was short lived, as contractors soon started defaulting on their collective agreements. In response, in 1958, Irvine successfully petitioned the Ontario government to apply the Industrial Standards Act for all plasterers across the province, who saw their work hours and wages improve to match those achieved by Local 117.


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

ASC52949_recto_previewThe tragic death of five Italian immigrants working in a watermain tunnel in an area know as Hoggs Hollow, on March 17, 1960, was the catalyst. The tragic accident was covered extensively in Toronto’s press, which began paying greater attention to the exploitation encountered by immigrant construction workers in the residential sector. This was especially the case with the Toronto Telegram, where the young labour reporter Frank Drea wrote a series of stories on the difficult lives and working conditions of Italian construction workers, for which he won the Heywood Broun Award for social justice journalism. The Hoggs Hollow tragedy shocked the city and angered the Italian community, which was now ready to fight for their labour rights and their dignity more than ever. Two weeks after that incident, on April 1, Irvine and Zanini organized the first meeting of their rogue collective, which included the Bricklayers’ Local 40, the Plasterers’ Local 117 and Local 117-C, the Laborers’ Local 811, and the Carpenters’ Local 1190. They called themselves the Brandon Union Group, after their meeting hall on Brandon Avenue.

Its first meeting drew hundreds of workers. Already motivated by their own personal experiences, the Hoggs Hollow tragedy, and the media’s vindication of their anger, the  predominantly Italian workers in the crowd would be further energized by Zanini’s and Irvine’s charismatic and captivating style. As Zanini later recalled: “At the meetings, Charlie would get up and put it to these men in English, and then I would get up and talk Italian. That’s how it was done. I would use my own phraseology, translate in my own volatile way. Very scaffolding language. I wouldn’t talk dignified or very romantic to them. Simplicity! But I had my own way, too, of dramatizing, bringing out my voice so that when I come to something delicate like their families, I would use a murmuring voice. No other business agent ever done these things before, Then when I come to something tremendous, I would use a top “C” of the voice that would just capture the crowd, I put it in their mouths. I fed it to them. Practically hypnotized them.” [3]

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Zanini waving NSF-stamped cheques during meeting at Lansdowne Theatre. Photo by Cooper. August 1, 1960. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC52274.

At the end of the meeting, the organizers presented a list of forty contractors who skirted paying statutory vacation pay. With Drea’s help, they delivered this list to the Ontario Attorney General and the Minister of Labour Charles Daley. Two days later, another meeting called by the Italian leftist newspaper Il Lavoratore, drew 400 workers, who publicly demanded that the Progressive Conservative Ontario Premier Leslie Frost take action against the exploitation of immigrant construction workers. The Brandon Group’s third meeting, on April 14, drew 2,000 people. Another meeting, on August 1, attracted 3,000. Fire safety concerns forced the organizers to move to the Lansdowne Theatre, on 683 Lansdowne Avenue. During Zanini’s speech, a worker jumped on stage and handed him a $392 pay-cheque with the initials NSF (“Not sufficient funds”) stamped on it. The operatic union leader grabbed the cheque and waved it at the men, stating: “This is the sort of exploitation that has to be stopped. Canada is a free country and immigrants should be treated the same as Canadians.”[4]

Workers outside 33 Brandon Avenue. Photo by Albert Van. August 12, 1960. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC52296.

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. According to Zanini: “It was something that had been built up for years in these immigrants. They were pushed and beaten. They had no way of letting off steam. The subcontractors never seen the men like this before. They were frightened! ‘Cause the men were excited, see? They were like animals – they had to be. It’s unfortunate, but there were no laws in them days, so we had to use baseball bats – the men had to do these things.” [5]

Although controversial, Irvine’s aggressive tactics worked. Nearly all fifty-two high rise apartment building projects in the city were stopped by this strike, causing around $50-million in losses. The pressure on cash-strapped and debt-ridden developers was enormous, but even more so on the (sub)contractors, many of whom were on the brink of bankruptcy. The first meeting between the Brandon Union Group and 400 subcontractors ended in a shouting match. Separate negotiations between each of the locals and their respective contractors started the following days at Brandon Hall and the Conroy Hotel. The first agreement was reached on August 10 between the Bricklayers’ Local 40 and the Masonry Contractors Association, followed by the Carpenters’ Local 1190, and the Laborers’ Local 811; the Plasterers’ participation in the strike was in solidarity, since they already had a collective agreement. By the time the strike ended, on August 17, hundreds of small and mid-sized (sub)contractors had agreed to significant wage increases, a 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, during which Zanini’s wife Mariella was given a flower bouquet. 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.


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

On the morning of May 29, 1961, the Scottish-Italian duo led a rally at Brandon Hall attended by over 4,300 workers, most of whom had to stand on the parking lot and listen to the speeches blasted through speakers. After the meeting ended, about 200 “flying squads” roamed metropolitan Toronto carrying over 2,000 strikers bent on closing down every apartment construction project in the region. So began the Brandon Union Group’s second illegal strike. This time around, 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 Bricklayers’ Bill Jenovese and the Laborers’ International Union of North America 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.

Goldenberg Commission_vertical

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.

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 the immigrants arrested that day was John Stefanini, then a business agent with Local 183, who was sentenced to six months in jail on trespassing charges. The seemingly arbitrary arrests and harsh sentences drew criticism from prominent labour leaders, like the Canadian Labour Congress’ David Archer, and the soon-to-be leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) Donald MacDonald. Besides intimidating strikers, these mass arrests also placed a heavy financial burden on the unions’ treasuries, which had to pay for their members’ hefty bails. On June 9, prompted by the strike’s quick and widespread escalation, Premier Leslie Frost offered the unions a “peace plan” that included: the creation of a temporary arbitration board; the appointment of more government inspectors to investigate labour standards violations; and the appointment of a royal commission inquiry. Despite having agreed to end the strike in a private meeting with Frost, Irvine did not follow through and the strike continued. On June 22, Irvine and Zanini suspended the “flying squads” and told the strikers to “keep your hands in your pockets” so to avoid further violence and bad publicity. Four days later, the Brandon Union Group and the Toronto Building Trades Council shut down every construction project in the city for twenty-four hours and held a solidarity rally at the CNE Grandstand, attended by more than 17,000 workers and a list of prominent labour leaders. Drea called it “the greatest rank and file rally in the history of the Canadian labor movement.”[6] 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.

CNE labour day victory
Bruno Zanini, Charles Irvine, and other Brandon Union Group members at the CNE grounds at the end of the 1961 Labour Day parade. Archives of Ontario, Charles Irvine fonds C331-6.

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, prompting Zanini to plead: Fellows, you don’t seem to realize the value of the good news you’ve just heard. Come on, what we won is great and I want you to be happy about it.” [7] Their gains since Frost’s initial offer were not clear, especially when considering the sacrifices that their families had made. Other than the royal commission, the only other gains were the reaffirmation of the Bricklayers’ Local 40’s previous agreement with the contractors and a Memorandum of Understanding with the other Brandon unions. After the initial hesitation, the 2,500 workers in the theatre finally erupted in cheers and carried Zanini and Irvine on their shoulders, happy that the strike was finally over.


The business agents hired by the now expanded Brandon Group unions soon became neglectful of their duties, allowing working conditions to once again deteriorate on construction sites. In response, their international offices sent a team of labour experts from the United States to educate the rookie Canadian agents, but also control them. These American envoys began deploying aggressive tactics commonly used in the United States, including rotating illegal walkouts that pushed many (sub)contractors out of business, including ethical ones. At this point, it became apparent that an extortion ring had been set up by labour racketeers, who demanded pay-offs or a percentage of profits from companies that wished to avoid work stoppages. In some cases, the union dues checked off from the workers’ paycheques, meant to build up their welfare benefit funds, were misappropriated. Furthermore, after the strike, rumours emerged that some developers had been the target of extortion by mobsters who said they would stop the labour dispute should the builders pay a hefty sum of money. Allegedly, some builders did pay and were upset that the strike continued, believing that Irvine or Zanini had pocketed their supposed pay-off. At this point, Zanini began receiving threatening phone calls, had his tires slashed multiple times, and was shot at while in his car; the bullet grazed its rooftop. Between September and October, 1961, three apartment construction sites in Metro Toronto were also blasted by dynamite. The assailants and their motivations were never discovered.

On February 1962, Zanini passed the leadership of the Bricklayers’ Local 40 to Toppan and became a consultant and conciliator for the Laborers’ International. On October 15, both Local 40 and the Laborers’ Local 811, with a combined 2,000 members, broke away from the Brandon Union Group. One of the main reasons for it was the ultimatum issued by the Masonry Contractors Association, which rejected to sign a new collective agreement if the two locals remained in the residential union alliance. This would lead the Laborers’ to revoke Local 811’s charter and instruct Zanini to sign the men with another local. Zanini’s decision caught Irvine by surprise, prompting suspicions that the Italian-Canadian organizer had made some kind of secret deal with the builders and was now trying to weaken the residential unions. The fatal blow to the Brandon Union Group came when a large number of members from the Carpenters’ Local 1190 left the alliance in solidarity with their leader Colantonio, after he was fired as an organizer by Irvine and Zanini. Colantonio had been critical of the Scottish-Italian duo’s lackadaisical management and rudeness towards the workers, and firmly opposed a collective agreement that they had approved with carpenter contractors without consulting the union’s membership, which included a severe cut in hourly wages.

Paul Volpe mugshot
Paul Volpe

After this break-up, Zanini was approached by Paul Volpe, a man with an imposing physique who called himself a labour consultant. According to the RCMP, Volpe was one of the leaders of the Canadian branch of Stefano Magaddino’s crime family based in Buffalo, which specialized in narcotics, extortion, and gambling. Volpe asked a nervous Zanini why he decided to “destroy” the Brandon Union Group, to which the latter allegedly explained that he was merely following orders from the Laborers’ International office. Weeks later, Volpe returned to calm the union organizer, explaining that his associates had “no bad intentions.” Around that time, Zanini found out that someone had tried to hire a hitman to shoot him, but nothing came of it because the would-be shooter (presumably Thomas Kiroff) was an acquaintance of his.

Bruno Zanini mugshot
Bruno Zanini mugshot. December 1963.

The anxiety resulting from these scares took a toll on Zanini’s health, who developed neurasthenia (physical fatigue, headaches, and irritability produced by emotional stress). It also estranged him from the workers and his consulting duties. Zanini decided to hire two bodyguards who occasionally escorted him. These men were also burglars, like Zanini had been in his youth. In December 1963, his criminal past caught up with him. According to Zanini, the two men convinced him to drive them to a doctor’s house on Forest Hill for a break-in. But they walked into a police trap. The three men were arrested while parked on the street before the heist even took place. After a first mistrial, Zanini would find himself in prison again in 1965 for sixteen months, charged with possession of burglary tools (a screwdriver and a flashlight). At the time he was $4,000 in debt and lived in a low-rent apartment with his sick wife Mariella and their two small children, John and Leonard. After his arrest, Zanini lost his job with the Laborers’ and began collecting a monthly $142 welfare cheque. He always maintained his innocence. In his words: “They figured I was worth $100,000 because I was a leader in the unions, that I was Jimmy Hoffa, they figured… Christ! I had to get legal aid in the end… Well, if I was a crook and a mastermind, I would have a lot of money. I could have took those bribes, eh? I could have made deals with the subcontractors to get 20 or 30 percent of their businesses like some of these other business agents done. If this was true… why, then, would I want to drive these guys in windbreakers on a score?” [8]


In the mid-1960s, high rise apartment builders in Metro Toronto sought cheaper constructions materials and labour techniques to reduce their project’s massive upfront costs. One such material and technology emerging in this period was concrete forming, and particularly flying form – see text box on the right for more. In the residential sector, Nick Di Lorenzo was the dominant contractor in this growing sector. Besides importing the flying-form technique from Europe and the tall cranes that made it possible, Di Lorenzo’s cost-cutting innovations included the creation of “teamwork.” In these work gangs, about a dozen men worked together over the duration of a project, doing all of the tasks involved in concrete forming; none of which required a fully trained craftsmen. This “teamwork” cut labour costs significantly since it replaced five different types of skilled unionized workers, previously hired to do individual tasks. This was directly opposed to the segmented way in which the construction labour market and unions operated, with jurisdictional boundaries defined by craft. Another reason why Di Lorenzo was able to corner the new concrete forming field was his aggressive outbidding and bullying of competitors, which he was able to do by keeping wages low. His companies employed around 60% of all forming workers, many of whom were paid less than $1 an hour. The working conditions in Di Lorenzo’s projects were appalling even by the standards of the time. Accidents were a daily occurrence, some resulting in deaths – from 1958 until 1979, 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 allegedly involved violent tactics, enforced by the private investigator Norman Menezes. Some of Menezes’ tasks involved threatening business competitors and union organizers, damaging their construction projects, and identifying union-friendly workers in Di Lorenzo’s companies. Altogether, concrete forming contractors would employ the largest number of workers out of all trades: about 3,000 men, most of them Italian immigrants. These new powerful companies also held a great deal of leverage when it came to negotiating contracts, given the fact that most of the work on a high rise project could not begin until the building’s concrete shell was completed.

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

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

The biggest hurdle for Simone was Di Lorenzo. Without his signature, it would have been foolish for the smaller contractors to sign a collective agreement that increased their labour costs and expect to outbid their larger competitor. But after multiple discussions with Simone, Di Lorenzo was finally convinced that sooner or later his companies would be unionized and that his best option was to accept Local 562’s offer to organize forming workers as a single trade (as opposed to the CFTU’s five) under an unprecedented five-year agreement that froze wages and guaranteed no strikes. Not only did Di Lorenzo agree, he assigned his public relations officer George Orla and crane operator foreman “Big” John D’Alimonte to organize his company workers into Local 562’s forming division. All that D’Alimonte had to do was threaten to fire anyone who did not join the union. It only took half a day to sign up all crane operators, then the remaining workers soon followed. Once Di Lorenzo was on board, the other contractors followed. On November 4, 1968, the purposely-founded Forming Contractors Association, representing nearly all (sub)contractors signed a five-year collective agreement with Simone’s Local 562. A “sweetheart deal” in the eyes of the CFTU and other unions. Zanini, who was present at this meeting, later recalled how he was introduced by Simone as a “tough guy,” insinuating that he was a link to the mob, as a way of intimidating the contractors: “I played the part in a half-assed way, not realizing that I was being taken, being used… But I felt it wasn’t needed. You didn’t have to resort to this strong-arm stuff.” [9] As was characteristic of Simone’s authoritarian style, the agreement was never ratified by the union’s membership. Only three contractors did not sign; two of them were Di Lorenzo’s main competitors, who opposed his dominance over the newfound association: Leader Structures, co-owned by the Italian Aurelio Bianchini, and Frank Kiri Forming, owned by Kiriakos Vlahos. These two companies signed a contract with the CFTU a few days later. According to Zanini, this infuriated Simone, who expressed his desire to “kill” Bianchini. [10] This turn of events upset the CFTU, which pressed charges against Simone’s “sweetheart deal” in the Ontario Labour Relations Board, on the grounds that Local 562 had no jurisdiction over concrete forming. The board agreed and ruled the “sweetheart” agreement illegal. At the same time, the CFTU allegedly offered to pay for Simone’s organizing expenses if he agreed to transfer the workers to them. Zanini’s advised him to take the deal, but Simone declined.


Chief of Police James Mackey. Photo by Jack Judges. April 10, 1961. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC54814.

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. [11] 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 was interviewed multiple times by Toronto’s Fire Marshall, to whom he always 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 form the Toronto Building Trades Council, which called for Mackey to either lay charges or resign for having “smeared the whole labor movement.” [12] This story again drew the media’s attention to Toronto’s construction industry and its controversial unions. Believing that the chief was referring to him, Zanini sought the help of his old friend in the Toronto Telegram, Frank Drea, who convinced the Italian-Canadian to grant an interview so to offer his side of the story. The reporter also called for a royal commission to investigate the financing of the construction industry and its continuous exploitation of workers.


At this time, the Laborers’ International Local 183 set in motion a plan to take over the Lathers Local 562’s concrete forming division, which represented about 2,500 workers. In May, they set up a discreet meeting with Simone and Zanini in Washington, where Gallagher offered to take the Lathers’ forming division in return for a $15,000 lump sum payment and the promise of hiring the two Italian organizers. According to the Irish leader, Zanini and Simone wanted control of their division’s finances but were refused. Still, it was understood that the transfer between unions would go ahead. [13] The proposed deal collided with Irvine’s own plans to integrate Local 562’s forming division into his Plasterers’ Local 117. In fact, he was in Washington at that time to present his jurisdictional claim over Toronto’s forming workers at the International Building Trades’ board. Growing increasingly concerned about the terms of the deal and the seriousness of Local 183’s commitment to him, Zanini informed Irvine about the deal in the making. The news enraged the Scotsman, who now saw Simone as a traitor and uttered a threat on his life should he accepted the offer. Still the Local 562 boss was told to go to Chicago to participate in another meeting on May 23 hosted by the Laborers, attended by international unions officers and forming contractors (including Di Lorenzo). Here, the president of the Lathers’ International agreed to transfer Local 562’s forming workers to the increasingly powerful Laborers’ Local 183, and that Simone was to work for them as a part-time director and adviser. The Forming Contractors Association agreed to this it after the Laborers allegedly offered to lend them $2 million. With this takeover, Local 183 asserted its dominance over Toronto’s construction industry.

Bruno Zanini speaking at a CFWU Local 1 meeting at the York Centre Ballroom. Photo by Richard Cole. July 6, 1969. York University, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC52173.

Left out of that arrangement was Zanini, who immediately began telling Local 562’s forming workers that they had been “sold like cattle” in Chicago. According to him, the union members and business agents “wanted no part of the Laborers,” [14] in part because many of them were tradesmen. On June 1, 1969, Zanini called a meeting at Lansdowne Theatre, where Local 183’s Gallagher and Stefanini believed they would be ratifying the merger of Local 562’s forming workers, until they were barred from entering the theatre. The 1,400 workers inside voted in favour of creating a “Canadian” union, independent from the Washington-based internationals, which became the Concrete Forming Workers Union (CFWU) Local 1. 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 story became national news once the CBC’s journalist Ed Cosgrove started reporting on it. Interviewed by the CBC’s news talk show host Warren Davis, Zanini, sporting sunglasses in a lit studio, framed it as a battle between international (or American) and Canadian unions: “[When] people making decisions first without regarding the membership, that’s an insult to Canadian people… Who are these two fellas in Chicago to make decision up here in Canada? What did they do to organize these people? Nothing! They didn’t put one red cent in it. And then they’re gonna tell us what to do over here, do go to somebody else?” He added:

I’m proud to be Canadian. I’m 40 years over here and I’m proud of it. We got pushed into it and we’re going to make the best of it. [15]

At the same time, 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.” [16] 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.

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. The Council’s business manager Alex Main met various times with Zanini in an effort to convince him to join them. One newspaper reported that the Italian had agreed to Main’s proposal of running the CFTU together, but those talks were discontinued upon instructions from his Local 1’s membership. [17] After this tactic failed, the Council held a series of illegal work stoppages against contractors who hired Zanini’s workers. According to the Italian-Canadian organizer, he became the target of concerted harassment, was regularly approached by suspicious women, had his phone tampered, and his car burned during period. 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 of 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 those in the commercial sector. The deal also included an “owner-builder” clause that allowed for developers building on land that they owned to hire residential union workers, even if it was a commercial project; this clause would be removed in 1974. This 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 Zanini’s words: “They failed to squeeze us out. The agreement is no more than a face-saver for the council. For us its a victory. We didn’t want the fight, but we refuse to give up our independence. We just want to be left alone.” [18]

In the end, Zanini won. But despite his celebratory statements to the press, the victors of this “warfare” between the “American” and “Canadian” unions were not entirely clear; although the losers certainly were. The illegal stoppages had cost the Building Trades Council about $75,000 in strike pay to the Teamsters’ drivers, which depleted its funds. The Washington offices of the international unions had to send in money to replenish the treasuries of Toronto’s locals and pay for the remaining picketers. But, once again, Zanini’s relative victory was short-lived. In late September 1969, the CFWU lost its Vice-President D’Alimonte, who later confessed to have been threatened and bribed by Simone into resigning. The Council also began to publicly accuse Zanini of being involved in a fraudulent scheme with the contractors. The biggest blow was the Ontario Labour Board’s twice refusal to certify the CFWU’s right to bargain for forming workers. At this point, Irvine again came to Zanini’s aid by arranging the provision of funds from his Plasterers and the Carpenters, but his efforts failed after the latter’s Washington executive were told that the Italian organizer had ties with the Mafia. Running out of options, Zanini accepted to merge his uncertified union with John Meiorin’s own independent Canadian Union of Construction Workers Local 1, in March 1970.


Under Meiorin’s union, Zanini was finally able to bring forming contractors to the bargaining table without having to call a strike. In the Fall of 1970, he was negotiating with Acu-Forming Ltd., one of the largest contractors in Metro Toronto, when a new public attack further damaged his reputation. This time, the accuser was the controversial former Ontario and Metro Toronto’s Chief Coroner and now NDP Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Morton Shulman. Speaking at the provincial legislature on October 27, Shulman, who in the past had made controversial accusations without providing evidence, claimed to have learned from a leaked confidential police report that the CFWU was a mob front; a “phony… sweetheart union.” This report resulted from the two-year joint investigation Project B, which the Ontario Premier John Robarts decided not to release to the public, since some of its contents had not been substantiated. That decision led one disgruntled police officer to leak a copy to Shulman. According to the MPP, Zanini was a Mafia agent backed by Johnny Papalia, Hamilton’s “kingpin of organized crime in Canada,” whose threat of violence allegedly kept Italian workers in line. Shulman also claimed that Irvine was “an agent of the Lathers’ union” and the mastermind of the operation. In the process, he called Simone an “honest” leader, who had been threatened by Irvine after refusing an order. The MPP also alleged that the CFWU’s strike in July 1969 had been ordered by forming contractors, who planned to used it as leverage to ask more money from developers. “Crooked employers… set up a crooked union to set up a crooked strike, a phony strike,” he added. Alarmed by these allegations, Acu-Forming and six other contractors walked away from the negotiations with the union. Zanini denied these accusations and dared Shulman to “put up or shut up,” to no avail. In the labour organizer’s words: “Boom! They stabbed us – with Morton Shulman… They destroyed the Canadian union right there with them allegations. I couldn’t do nothing about it. I couldn’t sue him because he wouldn’t repeat it outside the legislature.” [19] By November 1970, the Attorney General Arthur Wishart dismissed Shulman’s allegations as “innuendos” and said there was no need for a public inquiry into the Mafia’s involvement in the construction industry.

After this episode, Zanini faced a series of health problems, including depression and nearly losing his hearing after undergoing surgery on his right ear, during which his heart stopped for a brief moment. His Canadian union continued to struggle financially despite Meiorin’s support and his members became increasingly restless. Yet again, Irvine came to Zanini’s aid and offered to take his men under his new Plasterers’ Local 733 and hire him as a business agent. The now 50-year old Italian-Canadian organizer accepted his old ally’s offer and gave it another shot at securing a contract for his loyal workers. The Scottish-Italian duo was back, for a brief moment. As a result, on March 8, Irvine and his four locals (i.e. the residential plasterers Local 117, residential cement masons Local 172, commercial plasterers Local 48, and commercial cement masons Local 598) were expelled from the Toronto Building Trades Council. In the eyes of the Council’s Business Manager, Alex Main, Irvine was a “dictator” who sought to “set up a new empire” in the residential sector, where drywall was quickly replacing plastering. Main pointed to a Labor Board decision of 1960 in which Irvine had been found to have imposed a condition during bargaining with a firm in Windsor stating that no more than 50% of workers could be of Italian origin. “He doesn’t love Italians. He’s looking for power. He’s looking for skulls. Every head is a per capita tax for the union. Someone has to pay his wages,” Main told reporters at a press conference. In response, Irvine and Zanini held a meeting on March 14 attended by 500 forming workers and members of the media. The two leaders denounced the Council’s actions as “harassment,” a “personal vendetta,” and accused them of sending a private detective posing as a photojournalist to take snapshots of the audience. They also accused the press of giving too much coverage to Shulman’s mob allegations, claiming that the MPP had “smeared” the Italian community by making defaming accusations under the legal immunity provided by the legislative chamber. [20]

Bruno Zanini and Charles Irvine at Lansdowne Theatre. Photo by Bruce Reed. April 4, 1971. York University, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC49463.

Zanini and Irvine held a series of subsequent meetings at the Lansdowne Theatre, with disappointing turnouts. Disappointing also, in the eyes of the press, was the “proof” that Irvine presented at one of these gatherings, on April 4, 1971, that Gus Simone was the one with ties with organized crime. The Scotsman referred to a visit he received from the mobster Paul Volpe who allegedly came with an offer from Simone to mend their relationship. Shulman, who attended this meeting, told the press that Irvine’s presentation did not sway his views, but he noted that “both sides” now agreed that the Mafia was involved and, therefore, the attorney-general should launch a public inquiry into the concrete forming industry. He was also pressured by reporters to provide evidence of his Mafia allegations, to which the MPP admitted to have based his comments on an affidavit sworn by the union-buster Menezes and a written statement signed by D’Alimonte.

Irvine and Zanini would sign several hundred forming workers into Local 733, which was more than the CFTU had. However, the duo’s alleged criminal associations, along with Irvine’s history of illegal walkouts, violent strikes, and push for ever-higher wages, frightened the builders who were no longer willing to negotiate with them. Facing this impasse, Zanini suggested that they go on strike in the summer, but to his surprise, Irvine decided against it. Even more surprising was the news, on July 30, 1971, that the Laborers’ Local 183, now led by John Stefanini, had decided to split from the CFTU and  organize forming workers on their own, which included raiding Local 733’s membership. With the help of a group of Italian-Canadian contractors, Local 183 reached an agreement on September 7, 1971, that covered all forming workers in Metro Toronto. Like the Toronto Building Trades Council had done in 1969, Stefanini signed this deal not with the contractors but with five of the largest apartment developers: Belmont, Cadillac, Del Zotto, Greenwin, and Meridian. To draw them in, he offered to lower wages and employer welfare payments. Local 183’s swift victory was confirmed a few months later at a meeting between the Plasterers’ and Laborers’ international executives in New York, where the first agreed to dismantle Irvine’s Local 733 and transfer its workers to Local 183. In return, the Plasterers were allegedly given $0.5 million. In a meeting at the Landsdowne Theatre, of so many good memories for Zanini, the veteran Italian-Canadian organizer told his men to join Local 183.


Waisberg shot clippingsOnce again, Zanini found himself unemployed and unable to find work in the labour movement due to his tainted reputation. His old ally convinced him to write about the plight of Italian immigrants and sell it to media outlets, including the CBC and The Globe and Mail, which Zanini tried to do. [21] Zanini’s organizing spirit was replenished after a conversation with D’Alimonte, in which the latter confessed to have been threatened and bribed to abandon the CFWU Local 1 and join the CFTU back in 1969, and to have been instructed by a lawyer to sign the damning statement that Shulman referred to at Queen’s Park. D’Alimonte was prepared to go public with these revelations and salvage Zanini’s reputation. The two men regarded Stefanini’s Local 183 as “a bunch of crooks” who tended to side with management against their own workers’ interests. Zanini then contacted individual Local 183 members and asked them to sign statements corroborating rumours that they had been cheated by their own union, in the hope of springing another government inquiry and eventually open the door for his independent Canadian union to return. He then called a public meeting on September 4, 1972, where D’Alimonte was to share his story with the world.

But before that could happen, on August 23, two men shot Zanini in the leg in the underground parking garage of his Toronto social housing apartment building in Weston. He was found bleeding on the ground by his two teenage sons after an anonymous caller told them what had happened. The press gave extensive coverage to this incident. When interviewed by the police on his bedside at the Humber Memorial Hospital, Zanini speculated that this had been the work of “paid professionals” hired by the builders, who wanted to prevent another government inquiry and make him stop “probing” the apartment building industry. Him and Frank Drea, now a Progressive Conservative MPP, had been gathering evidence about the involvement of up to three crime syndicates in Toronto’s and Hamilton’s residential construction industry, which they were planning to give to the attorney general. “That’s why he was shot, pure and simple,” Drea told the press. The NDP MPP Shulman scoffed at this notion, arguing instead that Zanini’s shooting was just another episode in the ongoing battle for control over Italian workers in the city. The Toronto Building Trades Council repudiated Drea’s statement and called on him to “be specific and name names if he can, instead of just smearing everyone.” [22]

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

Waisberg Commission
Click on the image to access the report.

One of Waisberg’s key witnesses was Simone, who agreed to testify under the protection of the Canada Evidence Act. The Lathers’ Local 562 boss spoke about the industry’s illicit practices, including his own, like the kickbacks and gifts he received from contractors. Simone testified that George Orla, Zanini, and Irvine were behind the arson attacks in 1968-1969. He based this accusation on the fact that Orla had visited Local 562’s office and given Zanini an envelope containing $1,500. However, Simone was not sure whether that happened a few days before or after the fire at Bianchini’s company office. Simone softened his claims upon cross examination, adding that Zanini had told him that the people who set the fires had done it “to discredit him,” and that he believed that the CFTU was behind it. [23] Another key witness was Zanini. As he would later tell journalist Catherine Wismer, before he was called to testify, Zanini was approached by two men who claimed to be business agents looking to hire him as an organizer for a new barbers union. They convinced Zanini to attend a lunch meeting at the King Edward Hotel, where he was escorted into a car and threatened to be killed should he reveal too much at the inquiry. The message seemed to have been received, as Waisberg’s considered Zanini’s three-day testimony to be unsatisfactory. Still, Zanini did not shy away from testifying that Simone had issue a threat on Bianchini’s life and wanted a bomb to be planted in his garage, after the contractor signed with the CFTU in the Winter of 1968. Another of the commission’s revelations was that Zanini’s shooter may have been a bouncer named Frank Veltri, also known as “The Angel.” Veltri was never charged because the weapon was never found. In a telephone conversation with his girlfriend, recorded by the police, Veltri was heard saying that Zanini was not a Mafia associate but was nonetheless despised by the cops. The inquiry also revealed that Thomas Kiroff, an employee of Volpe’s laundry company, had been asked but to shoot the union organizer but refused because he was a friend of his son Leonard. [24]


AO Irvine 42.png
Charles Irvine, Angelo Burigana, Bruno Zanini, and unknown woman. Archives of Ontario, Charles Irvine fonds C331-6.

Despite its massive investigation, the Waisberg Commission failed to be the comprehensive examination of the industry that Zanini and others had hoped for, for it limited itself to confirming the presence of Mafia elements without offering clear answers. It did, however, break the once indomitable spirits of Irvine and Zanini. In his report, Waisberg described Zanini as someone whose chief concern was to get paid for his union organizing work, without fully comprehending the duties and obligations of a business agent. After this disappointment, Zanini retired from the labour movement once and for all, and struggled to make ends meet. Living with his two sons and wife in a two-bedroom apartment, he had little wealth to show for; unlike Simone, whose union activities garnered him enough money to build a ranch-house with a backyard pool outside of Toronto. Zanini was also forced to spend more time at home caring for his ailing wife Mariella, until she died in 1981. Zanini outlived her for another twenty-eight years. His body is buried on Toronto’s Park Lawn Cemetery on a site marked by a humble gravestone with the simple inscription: “In loving memory of Bruno Zanini, 1921 ~ 2009.”




[1] Bruno Zanini (date unknown), cit. in Catherine Wismer. Sweethearts. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, p. 44.
[2] Ibid, p. 46-7.
[3] Ibid, p. 51.
[4] Ibid, p. 80.
[5] Ibid, p. 80-81.
[6] Frank Drea, “Hundreds More Join Construction Strike,” Toronto Telegram, June 26, 1961.
[7] Zanini cit. in Frank Colantonio. From the Ground Up. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1997, p. 138.
[8] Zanini cit. in Wismer, Sweethearts, p. 96.
[9] Ibid, p. 142-3.
[10] Michael Keating. “Simone wanted contractor blown up, organizer tells probe.” Globe & Mail, February 6, 1974: 31.
[11] Michael Keating. “Fires linked to 3 men by Simone.” The Globe & Mail. January 25, 1974: 1.
[12] “Threatening notes sent to contractor amid police charges.” Toronto Star, March 6, 1969: 1 & 4.
[13] “The Day It Is,” CBC TV, June 3, 1969.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Wilfred List. “Council plans to woo, or battle, Zanini union.” Globe & Mail. July 16, 1969: 5.
[18] Wilfred List. “Pact is seen as end to warfare in construction field.” Globe and Mail, September 18, 1969: 1-2.
[19] “Shulman links union to Mafia.” Toronto Star, October 28, 1970: 1-2. Zanini cit. in Wismer, Sweethearts, p. 156.
[20] Wilfred List. “Trade’s Council declares open war on Irvine’s union.” Globe & Mail, March 26, 1971: p. 1. “Union organizer Irvine accuses building council of harassment.” Globe & Mail, March 15, 1971: p. 5.
[21] Thomas Claridge. “Boss told him to ‘form me my own union,’ worker says.” The Globe and Mail, January 30, 1974: 5.
[22] “Zanini says shot was warning to quit probing building trade.” Toronto Star, August 24, 1972: 1.
[23] Keating, “Fires linked to 3 men.”
[24] Michael Keating. “Contracts to kill two potential witnesses described at lathing probe.” Globe & Mail. January 22, 1974: 1.