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February 23, 1999
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Union leaders search for answers to beating

Police looking into labour-related issues after brutal attack

By Jim Rankin
Toronto Star Staff Reporter

The men pummeling John Stefanini said little as they went about their task in the busy parking lot. Metal bars were swung, followed by the sound of breaking bone. The prominent labour leader rolled on the asphalt, howling in pain.

Amid the daylight kicks and swings, the four or five attackers delivered a pointed, one-word message - ``Rat.''

It has now been more than three weeks since the executive director of the Residential Alliance of Building Trade Unions and former business manager of the largest construction trade union local in the country was beaten as he arrived at his Vaughan office on the morning of Jan. 29.

It's still unclear what the attackers - or whoever was behind it - believed Stefanini had done. Or to whom.

York Region police have had several leads, but so far say they have no suspects. Given Stefanini's work in organized labour, they have confirmed they are looking into labour-related issues.

Union thuggery has long been part of the labour landscape, but the beating of such a prominent player - one known for resisting criminal influence - has sent other labour figures into alert mode.

Stefanini, in his late '50s, told The Star he prefers not to comment on the beating, which left him with a broken arm and gash to his forehead.

It's unlikely the attackers - described by witnesses as being in their early 20s - knew much about the beginnings of Giancarlo (Johnny) Stefanini, the labour leader.

Nearly 40 years ago, Stefanini, a bespectacled, studious young man who came to Canada from northern Italy, began a battle for workers' rights and soon became one of the most respected figures in Ontario's construction unions.

He is credited with organizing Italian labourers in the '60s, when about 30,000 worked in construction. He spent time in jail for obstructing police in a police raid on a construction site during a strike flare-up and, as a result, was threatened with deportation. The government intervened and Stefanini gained martyr-like status within the labour movement.

He became business manager of Labourers International Union of North America, Local 183 - an elected post he held for more than 20 years until he retired in 1992.

During that time, he was known for insisting on running a clean shop and turned the local, a once-small trade union, into a powerhouse that now boasts 20,000 members.

Linda Torney, president of the Labour Council of Toronto and York Region, recently sent a letter to York Region Police Chief Julian Fantino requesting every effort be put into finding those responsible for Stefanini's beating.

``It's a frightening situation for labour leaders. We're not used to that sort of thing in this country and we don't want to have to get used to it,'' she said.

John Cartwright, business manager of the 40,000-member Toronto-Central Ontario Building & Construction Trades Council, has also condemned the attack.

``To happen to you in broad daylight, that's a pretty clear message they're not afraid of anybody.

``We can't have top labour leaders in this community being beaten up in broad daylight and have the people who perpetrated get away with it,'' said Cartwright, who several years ago was concerned about being targeted himself.

``People are quite nervous about this whole situation,'' he said.

Stefanini's attack also caused major concern among the members of the alliance, a partnership involving eight building trade unions. A few days after the beating, alliance representatives met and the consensus was that they should watch their backs.

The alliance was set up in late 1997 in an effort to seek harmony among construction unions and push for an end to membership raiding.

``It was a horrible thing that happened to him and the police are investigating. It's probably not appropriate to comment at this time,'' said John Lewis, president of the alliance and business manager and general counsel for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters-Drywall Acoustic Local 675.

In 1996, Lewis was jumped outside his Toronto home by a group of men and beaten. Last summer, on two separate occasions, he came home to find men waiting for him. Both times he managed to flee.

What motivated Lewis' beating and the acts of intimidation is not clear. Police investigated, but came up empty. The attack on Stefanini was witnessed by many office workers on Director Crt., a business plaza near Steeles Ave. W. and Weston Rd. After the beating, the men nonchalantly jogged to a waiting a dark red station wagon with wood panelling and fled.

According to three sources, the attackers called Stefanini a ``rat.''

It's not the first time Stefanini has been in danger.

While the Labourers international union south of the border was battling allegations of mob influence in the '80s, Stefanini was proud of the fact that had not been allowed to happen in his local. He was later surprised to learn there had been a price put on his head.

In 1990, a man the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Buffalo described as a long-time organized-crime figure and son of a mob chieftain, told The Star about an American Mafia plan during the late '80s to have Stefanini killed.

Mobsters connected to the union decided after a couple of years that Stefanini should live, the informant, Ronald M. Fino, told The Star.

After retiring from Local 183 in 1992, Stefanini was back in the labour picture about five years later when he took on the job as the Residential Alliance's executive director.

The Labourers are not part of the alliance. Other construction trade unions have recently - and repeatedly - claimed that the Labourers have been raiding their members in an effort to boost membership.

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