Default header image

“Laying the Foundation for Worker’s Rights” ~Faye Varanesi

Laying the Foundation for Worker’s Rights

The purpose of “Laying the Foundation for Worker’s Rights: The role of

Italian Canadians in the unionization of the residential construction industry in Toronto” is to highlight the extent of which Italian Canadian workers were involved in the creation of labour unions for the residential construction industry in Toronto, specifically from 1960-1961. 

After WWII, an influx of Italian immigrants was coming to Canada; most immigrants were going to Montreal or Toronto. In Toronto at this time, there was a huge boom in the construction industry. As the population rose, they needed to build more housing developments surrounding the city. A lot of Italian men joined the construction industry and by the 1960s, over 15,000 Italian Canadian men worked in the residential sector as bricklayers, labourers, carpenters, plasterers, and cement finishers. Most of these immigrants were forced to work in the residential sector because it was unregulated, compared to the commercial and industrial sectors. The latter two were controlled by the Toronto Construction Association, which was a group of large companies who only hired members from the unions in the Building Trade Council. However, these unions had predominantly Anglo-Saxon members and enforced rules such as high membership fees that kept immigrant workers excluded. Marino Toppan, former Italian-Canadian union leader, comments about the differences between the two sectors: 

It was like you walked into a different world because they already had to use safety boots, they already had to wear safety hats…the scaffolding was all built according to specifications and the working conditions were human…we were just looking outside with not even hope to getting there (Fernandes, City Builders, 18:33).

The residential sector was so unorganized, it was nicknamed “the jungle.” Workers would mainly hear of jobs and were hired by word of mouth. They would learn of a job and meet at a designated spot early in the morning. Someone would pick them up and drive them to the construction site. There were no unions that included new immigrant workers and subcontractors paid little attention to safety. Checks would often bounce, or construction companies would declare bankruptcy before paying workers. Lack of safety regulations led to many people getting injured or dying on the job. Toppan remarks that the local Italian newspaper stopped printing worker deaths on the front page because they were so common. It was no longer breaking news to hear of a worker losing their life. 

This working environment became too chaotic and some felt things had to change. Starting October 1958, Bruno Zanini and Marino Toppan, both bricklayers from the Friuli region, started to go to bars and cafes to talk to immigrant workers and rally them to form unions. April 1960, Bruno Zanini and Scottish-Canadian union leader Charles Irvine organized five locals that represented residential construction workers to form the Brandon Union Group (BUG), named after the street where their meetings at the Italian-Canadian Recreation Club took place. Over the next few months 5,000 workers, mostly Italians joined the BUG. 

August 1, 1960, 3,000 workers of the union group began a three week-long illegal strike. They asked for recognition of the BUG as a legitimate union group, 40hr work weeks, increase in pay, and welfare benefits. Union leader Frank Colantonio comments on how other immigrant groups were indifferent to the strike and “blamed the Italians for flooding the market with cheap labour and [concluded] ‘the Italians created the problem and it’s up to them to solve it’” (Agnoletto, 221). Another interesting fact is that although Italian women were not part of the strike, they still played a significant role. The men were able to stay on strike while their wives were still working and making money for the family. Some women even got their first jobs in Canada during this time. The strike ended August 17 with success. Contractor associations granted their workers wage increases, vacation pay, breaks during the workday, and regulations for the transportation of workers from pick-up sites to work sites. Another outcome of the strike is the residential construction workers were able to march in the 1960 Labour Day parade. 

However, as time went on construction companies started to find ways to get around having to comply with the requests from the first strike. Therefore, on May 29, 1961 the Brandon Union Group started another illegal strike. Different from the first one, the BUG had support from the Building Trades Council and affiliated international unions. The international union even gave the BUG a donation of $20,000 that was fundraised by unions in American cities with significant Italian populations. This money was to go towards paying the striking workers. Another contrast from the first strike was police presence. The police were ready for picketers at job sites, and men were arrested or assaulted for striking. By the fourth week, 15,000 workers had stopped working. To get construction started again in Toronto, Ontario Premier Leslie Frost proposed a three-point plan to appease the workers. This plan included implementing a task force, called the Goldenburg Commission, to investigate the Toronto construction industry and propose reform. This second strike ended July 15. 

What I valued the most in the project was the testimonies and quotes from former workers and union leaders. Their first-hand accounts really help one to fully understand the working conditions and experiences of the workers. Additionally, excerpts from union meeting speeches display the tremendous passion the union leaders had for the causes they were fighting for. Using the information presented, it can be concluded that Italian Canadians played a large role in initiating the labour movement in the Toronto residential construction industry. Italians were the leaders, and the workers who formed unions and fought for the rights of all immigrant workers. However, it must be asked if different events would have happened if it was a different immigrant group that made the majority. Were these strikes labelled as “Italian” only because Italians made up the majority of the workers? This question can be explored by examining why a large majority of Italian men worked in the construction industry after immigration. Additionally, the role of other ethnic groups in the union activities cannot be overlooked and deserve further research. Other topics for further study would be to compare these strikes with others that may have been instigated by Italian workers in other sectors and other locations in Canada at the time, or to further investigate the impact of the 1960 and 1961 strikes on Italian Canadian women.

Faye Varanesi

University of Toronto, 2019

Works Cited 

Agnoletto, Stefano. The Italian Who Built Toronto: Italian Workers and Contractors in the 

City’s Housebuilding Industry, 1950-1980. Bern, Peter Lang AG, 2014.

“City Builders. Episode 2: ‘The Jungle.’” Youtube. Uploaded by Gilberto Fernandes, 30 Sept.

2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukSL24gG2u0

York University, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram Fonds.