Comunidade newspaper, 1975-1979. Part 1: Records and commentary

Comunidade regularly reported on the difficult working conditions that immigrants encountered in Canada; the exploitation they were subjected to; and called for greater Portuguese-Canadian participation in the labour movement. An example of this emphatic position is the article below, signed by José Borges, an occasional contributor to the newspaper:

“UNITY!

During the first editions of the newspaper “COMUNIDADE” we published various interviews, testimonies of female and male workers who were the object of injustice in their places of work in the factories, on construction sites, in cleaning, etc… where their employers or the “bosses” abused their human dignity…

More importantly than our interviews is that workers unite or form groups and workers committees in the places where they work and write us about the injustices, the struggles for a decent wage, the collective agreements and the strikes [greves], on safety and working conditions. Your letters can be delivered or sent to the Comunidade Newspaper, Secção do Trabalhador [Workers Section].

Remember that immigrant workers do the jobs that no one else wants to do: that immigrant workers make minimum wages, are unskilled wage workers who suffer most with unemployment, and the rising cost of living.

The lack of safety measures for workers provoke accidents that leave workers without fingers, without arms, often disabled for life!

Let’s end the abuse!

Let’s fight for the dignity of human beings in work places!

Let’s work for the unity of workers!

Working Committee

José Borges” October 1975, Year 1, n. 3: 8 (trans. Gilberto Fernandes).

 

"ANOTHER TRAGEDY AT WORK

In Toronto, another tragedy at the work site. Two men were killed and six were injured, one of them António Oliveira, 26 years of age, is still in the hospital with a broken back. On Tuesday the 27th, at 8 a.m., while working on the demolition of the old Ontario Hydro building at Frederick and Esplanade, the roof fell on them. The result was tragic: António de Frenze, a 46 year-old worker, was crushed by the beams and the debris from the roof, dying an hour later at the hospital. António Paiva, 40 years-old, living in a bedroom on Crawford Street, died instantly, so hard was the shock taken by the unfortunate compatriot who dreamt of bringing his family, still in Portugal, to be near him. His dream will never come true because he was not able to save enough money. A dream that faded like smoke, like so many other dreams of the immigrant, who leaves his land to win the bread with the sweat of his face and sometimes his blood.

The workers were employed by Greenspoons Bros. Ltd., which, it seems, were responsible for the tragedy for not guaranteeing enough safety for its workers..." September 1977, Year 3, n. 32: 10 (trans. Gilberto Fernandes).

"WIDOW COMES FROM PORTUGAL TO CLAIM HUSBAND'S BODY

...As of public knowledge, our compatriot António Paiva died in a work accident during the demolition of the Johnson Furniture Factory building in Toronto. His wife arrived in this city on the 2nd of October (five days after the tragedy), from Capelas, Portugal. She arrived alone, tired and naturally nervous. The two-way flight cost her $650.00 which was a great financial sacrifice. The widow of the unfortunate Paiva travelled over 2 thousand miles to see her husband for the last time, something that her six children could not, but not even that she was able to do.

Ms. Àgueda was notified of the death of her husband 2 days after the accident occurred, and, once in Canada, she found his body at the Greenville Street morgue in such bad shape that she was not allowed to see him. No one had claimed the body, so it was waiting there for some relative to claim it.

The spokesperson of Greenspoon Bros., the company that employed António Paiva, said he was not aware that the body was still at the morgue, thanked for that information, and said he would take care of the matter. According to the widow, Mr. António Paiva was planning to return to Portugal for good sometime in the next couple of months, since he was in this country illegally" October 31, 1977, Year 3, n. 33: 1 (trans. Gilberto Fernandes).

Comunidade provided its readers with useful information on a number of services available to immigrant workers, including which avenues to pursue when asserting their rights. For instance, in this article published in February 1977, José Gonçalves interviewed two representatives of the Injured Workers Consultants about the services they provided. 

Comunidade's coverage reflected the editors' and writers' interest in women, workers, and immigrant rights. The newspaper featured articles on women's labour activism and women's rights more generally. In this photo, a group of garment workers at the McGregor Hosiery Mills factory, most of them Portuguese women, are gathered to discuss their first collective bargaining, following the introduction of the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union in their workplace.

The photo was published in the November-December, 1977 issue of Comunidade. The article highlighted the actions of Fernanda Couto, one of the union organizers at the McGregor factory, who had been in Canada for only three years. She explained that, "We started organizing the Union because the factory was a little harsh. When they asked me to sign the union card I told them I didn't understand anything about unions... In the meantime the factory collected signatures in a petition saying that we did not want a union. Many of us, afraid of the supervisor, signed declaring that we did not want the union. I fell for it and signed. But afterwards I said to myself: "what kind of woman am I if I am not even able to get a grip of myself." So I intercepted the paper and scratch my name. The next day, when [the supervisor] saw my name scratched it was a struggle, a bullfight with me. He would throw socks against the machines, I cried because I couldn't speak English to answer back. He spoke really bad.

...It was a lot of work to organize the union, but I am satisfied because now we have one. In regards to the workers, on one hand they are happy, on the other they feel a bit down. They wanted a higher raise, but the first contract is difficult. We worked a lot to achieve what we were able to. We got life insurance and payments for O.H.I.P. and medicine starting January 1 '78. The men and the office workers had all that, but the women didn't. They will also pay five sick days per year after three years of work at the factory" November-December 1977, Year 3, n. 34: 6 (trans. Gilberto Fernandes).

An article titled "Portuguese Give Masters' Lesson in Syndicalism," published in the issue of June 29, 1979, reported how the cleaners of the Toronto Dominion Center replaced their union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for being "incompetent" and not properly representing their interests, with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). The SEIU had been certified as the bargaining agent in 1967, before the new towers had opened.

In this photo, standing left to right are, Fernando Rebelo, Luis Ponte, António Machado, Maria Lopes, Tony Medeiros. Sitting left to right are, Fernando Sobral, João de Sousa, Helen Brown (CUPE Rep.), and Mário Casalini.

For more on this and other episodes related to the labour organization of Portuguese cleaners see the 'Portuguese women in Toronto's cleaning industry, 1970-1990' exhibit on this website.

The main story of the January 1, 1979 issue focused on the efforts of the Labourers' International Union of North America (L.I.U.N.A.), Local 183, to attract the interest of its many Portuguese members. The article focused on the difficult situtation of the many Portuguese immigrants working in construction, and their lack of interest in union matters. As reported in the newspaper, Local 183 sought to expand its objectives beyond improving wages through collective bargaining, but also improving work safety, providing bureaucratic and social assistance to its unemployed members, facilitating their professional development, and promoting their participation in the union's organization.

in order to achieve these objectives, the Local introduced ethnic representatives who could speak the language and understand the cultural characteristics of its members. The article reported that three of the twenty union officers were Portuguese. One of them was 27 year-old Victor Barreiras, born in Bombarral, Portugal. Barreiras moved to Canada at the age of 9, and completed grade 11 at the Central Technical High School of Toronto. At the age of 17 he began working in tunnel construction. He explained he had abandoned his studies because at the time he did not find any future in them, and also because his father got him a job in construction. He added that, if he could, he would go back on that decision and continue his education. In any case, he progressed in his career, first by being elected as shop steward by his colleagues, and three years later being hired by Local 183 as an Organizer, and the following year as a Business Representative. By 1976, he had been elected Executive Board Member at Local 183 - he was the only Portuguese running in these elections, where only 80 out of 1200 were Portuguese.

Anónio Lucas, who was born in Guarda, Portugal, had migrated to Canada when he was 15 years-old. Because he came from a large family, he began working right away to help his parents. For two years he worked picking mushrooms and then moved to road building. At 19 he became a member of Local 183. Marrying the next year, Lucas thought about changing his life and so enrolled in night school with the goal of learning english, and later joining the Police. Eventually he changed his mind and continued in construction. Because of his education and experience, the company offered him a foreman position, which he assumed for twelve years. In 1976 he was hired as a dispatcher with Local 183 where he worked for half a year, until a position opened for a representative in the road building area.

António Dionisio, born in Lourinhã, moved to Cassear, British Columbia, when he was 13-14 years-old to join his father who worked in an asbestos mine. After a few months his family moved to Toronto, where he studied English and Welding at George Brown College. Years after, he finally found a job as a welder and became a member of Local 183. He took an immediate interest in union matters, attending every meeting and participating in committees. He explained that he made less money as a Complaints Officer than he was making as a welder, but it gave him the opportunity to pursue a career in labour organization.

in this photo, from left to right, is António Dionísio, Victor Barreiras, António Lucas (Portuguese Representatives), John Stefanini (Business Manager), Fernanda Gaspar (Comunidade's editor), and Marino Toppan (Social Services Representative).

This article reported that Local 183, which represented residential and civil construction workers, was one of the largest construction unions in Canada with 8,000 regular and 1,000-2,000 irregular members; 50% were Italian, 35% Portuguese, and 15% of other origins.

As a Complaints Officer, Dionisio spent much time listening to the concerns of Portuguese immigrants and was frustrated by their lack of action and concern for keeping records of their work: "Workers (and it seems Portuguese, more than any others) are afraid of losing their jobs, especially in periods when there is lack of work, recent immigrants don't understand that they have rights and many of those who come from rural areas are very suspicious of unions... In construction, unionized workers have so many advantages and such higher wages than their non-unionized colleagues that soon they lose their fear or suspicion. Presently, the wage of, for instance, a manual labourer in road building is $8.91 per hour, another 9 per cent for vacation pay, besides health insurance, Reform, life Insurance, Dental Plan and paid medecine."

The article also mentions the willingness of the Local to accept women in its ranks: "One of our interviewees tells us an interesting episode: a woman went to ask an overseer for work at a building under construction and the overseer, who did not want to give her work, sent her to the union. She showed up at the union and said the overseer would give her work as soon as she became a member. This was a period when there were no members unemployed, and so the dispatcher made her a member and she went back to the overseer who immediately called the dispatcher protesting against him having accepted a woman. The dispatcher maintained the registry and the woman stayed, working without any problems. She was lucky..."

January 31, 1979, Year 4, Vol. 2, n. 9: 1, 6-7 (trans. Gilberto Fernandes).

Comunidade's interest in labour politics was not solely focused on the Portuguese community, and in fact it gave great coverage to strikes, protests and other labour initiatives in the larger Canadian society, whether or not they directly involved Portuguese immigrants. For instance, the cover story of the November 01, 1976 issue reported the general strike of October 14: “Over a 1 million Canadian workers, the largest part affiliated with unions, did not go to work on the past October 14 to protest the Federal Government’s wage control measures… In Toronto 200 thousand workers skipped work, about 8 thousand gathered in front of the provincial parliament, and 2 thousand in front of the federal parliament in Ottawa,” November 01, 1976, Year 2, n. 5: 1-2.
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