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“A Complex Affair: Union Participation and Italian Immigrant Workers” ~Carmen Russo

A Complex Affair: Union Participation and Italian Immigrant Workers

            For my poster “The Complexity of Union Life and Italian Immigrant Workers,” I undertook a comparative study approach in order to better understand the lives of unionized Italian immigrant workers in Toronto throughout the history of Italian immigrants in the city. I anchored my study in the 1960-61 construction strikes in Toronto, which signalled a transition in the Italian labour community from passive immigrants to a united, militant force. From there, I reviewed, conducted, and analyzed two interviews to create a base for research on the period’s pre- and post- the 1960s strikes. Thus, there are three key periods reviewed in my work: the 1920s, 1960-1961 and the 1970s to the early 2000s. 

I approached the topic by first reviewing unpublished recordings of Dr. Robert Harney’s interview with Mr. Leo Palermo, an Italian immigrant and member of a garment maker’s union in Toronto in the 1920s. Harney was a professor of migration and ethnic studies at the University of Toronto and founded the Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario, an organization that has catalogued archives and conducted interviews of members from various ethnic communities across Ontario. Harney’s papers and recording are housed at the University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services (UTARMS). 

I follow Harney’s methods and interviewed Mr. Camillo Casciato, an Italian immigrant and a former member of the Steamfitters Union in Toronto from the 1970s until the early 2000s. My goal in comparing the interviews was to understand how Italian immigrants have experienced union life and unionization over time, and if and how the 1960-61 strikes made a significant impact on union life for Italian labourers. While there was no clearly established method for Harney’s mode of interview, I found that overall Harney followed Mr. Palermo’s line of thought while the interview was conducted, and built questions out of the insights Mr. Palermo shared. I focused on building my line of questioning in a similar fashion when interviewing Mr. Casciato. As a result, my interviews involved questions surrounding education, experiences with discrimination and familial relationships. Information on the 1960-61 constructions strikes was gleaned from Franca Iacovetta’s book Such Hardworking People.  

From my research, six overlapping themes emerged: education, ethnic discrimination, kinship networks, safety, self-organization, and financial stability. In education a shift occurs in the emphasis from informal to formal education and training required by unions. Education connects to the two photographs on my poster, as I have included Mr. Casciato’s Grade 10 diploma for the York Region School Board, and a class photo from his time at George Brown College. Ethnic discrimination was seen in all three periods, with the “English” referenced multiple times in both interviews and Iacovetta’s work. Kinship networks were also important in all three periods, as Italian labourers relied on family and paesani to offer emotional and financial support. From the period of the strikes to the 1970s, financial stability seemed to increase, and safety measures were made a priority. Finally, the militant organization of the 1960-61 strikes reflects both the past and the present, as Italians in unions before and after the strike often organized to fight for better rights. 

Ultimately, this research could not be completely conclusive in linking changes in union participation and union life from the 1920s to the 1970s in Toronto on the construction strikes. However, it did shed light on the continued experiences of discrimination faced by Italian workers throughout the twentieth century, as well as the positive changes possibly influenced by the strike, such as increased safety measures, the influential power of immigrant organization, and financial stability. I believe this research could be a launching point for further research into the connections between the 1960-61 strikes and the evolving relationship between Italian immigrant labourers and unions in Toronto. 

                                                                                                            Carmen Russo

                                                                                                            University of Toronto, 2019