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The Italians Who Built Toronto

Italian Workers and Contractors in the City’s Housebuilding Industry, 1950–1980


Stefano Agnoletto

After World War II, hundreds of thousands of Italians emigrated to Toronto. This book describes their labour, business, social and cultural history as they settled in their new home. It addresses fundamental issues that impacted both them and the city, including ethnic economic niching, unionization, urban proletarianization and migrants’ entrepreneurship.
In addressing these issues the book focuses on the role played by a specific economic sector in enabling immigrants to find their place in their new host society. More specifically, this study looks at the residential sector of the construction industry that, between the 1950s and the 1970s, represented a typical economic ethnic niche for newly arrived Italians. In fact, tens of thousands of Italian men found work in this sector as labourers, bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers and cement finishers, while hundreds of others became contractors, subcontractors or small employers in the same industry. This book is about these real people. It gives voice to a community formed both by entrepreneurial subcontractors who created companies out of nothing and a large group of exploited workers who fought successfully for their rights. In this book you will find stories of inventiveness and hope as well as of oppression and despair. The purpose is to offer an original approach to issues arising from the economic and social history of twentieth-century mass migrations.
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Chapter 6: Sciopero! The processes of unionization and the 1960–1961 strikes


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Sciopero! The processes of unionization and the 1960–1961 strikes

6.1 Challenging the exploitation: attempts at unionization in the 1950s

In section 5.1 I highlighted the apparent paradox that the lack of union presence in Toronto’s residential construction sector was an opportunity for Italian immigrants. In fact, in the 1950s, it helped to make this sector the Italian niche, by being an industry without barriers to entrance. On the other hand, if, in the short term, the lack of unionization seemed to be an advantage for the Italian immigrants, the features that marked the residential sector show the reality of exploitation of workers in a non-unionized industry (see section 5.2).

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