Joseph S. Mancinelli Of LiUNA!

The Man Who Leads Canada’s Largest Building Trade Union By Angus Gillespie

As the consummate principal of Canada’s largest building trade union, Joseph S. Mancinelli has spent his entire adult life working for one organization – LiUNA! Just 21 when he first joined the team, Mancinelli has spent more than 36 years growing hand-in-hand with the labour union, which has seen his incredible ascension through the ranks matched only by the growth of the union itself to the point where he’s now responsible for 80,000 members as International Vice President and Regional Manager, Central & Eastern Canada.

Mancinelli’s story of success is a fascinating one that fits well into his own philosophy about how young people need to explore more than one possible opportunity for a career path in order to ultimately make prudent life decisions. It’s also a narrative of an individual who came from humble beginnings as the son of an Italian immigrant to make his way to the top through a lot of hard work, perseverance and inspiration from others. He’s a youthful looking 57, with an outgoing personality and energetic enthusiasm that makes it obvious he loves what he is doing.
The path taken by Mancinelli to where he stands now can be traced back to 1974, when he enrolled at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario with aspirations of becoming a graphics animator.

“I love art and I still paint,” he tells us during an exclusive interview at his beautifully-decorated downtown Hamilton office. “I give away a number of my paintings for charity and for the hospitals or for fundraisers where they are auctioned off.”

About 40 years ago the plan was to be an animator, because, as Mancinelli recalls, he thought it would be a cool thing to do. But this was a time when computerization was in its infancy, just beginning to take hold within the industry, which he quickly realized wasn’t to his liking.

“I wasn’t really big on that,” he recalls. “I thought it was a huge transition between the artistic and the technology and I was more into the artistic side.”

Mancinelli remained at the school for one year before coming to terms with the fact this was not going to be the future career path for him. The following year he enrolled in the Fine Arts program at McMaster University in Hamilton. It was during the summer of 1975 when he began working with LiUNA as a construction worker to earn money for his education.

“I was still completely enamored with fine arts, figuring that I could find some kind of employment at the end of it,” he rationalizes. “But that experience at McMaster opened my eyes – that Canada doesn’t have a deep appreciation for the arts. I think most people who hang stuff into their homes are still buying it at Walmart.”

It was at this crucial time in his life when Mancinelli opted to transfer into labour studies, in large part because of his background. His father was a pioneer at LiUNA and someone who had earned the respect of many co-workers, not to mention his son’s. Enrico Mancinelli came to Canada in 1952 in search of a better life, not being able to speak a word of English. By the late 1950s he began a career with LiUNA as a Rep. before eventually becoming a business manager. He was known to his friends as Henry, the English equivalent of Enrico. He passed away in 2006.

“He was an exceptional person with a strong character,” Mancinelli fondly recalls. “He didn’t fit the 1950s and 1960s typical union boss character. I think he was way ahead of his time. I had a mentor that gave me enormous advantages.”

“When I shifted gears into labour studies and industrial relations and graduated from McMaster with a number of business courses as well, I had taken economics classes, even although I hated economics,” Mancinelli chuckles. “Sure enough when I finished, I took a course at the Wharton School of Business, and I had to take economics again.”

At the conclusion of school, Mancinelli joined LiUNA on a full-time basis in 1978, working for their pension plan in Toronto before moving on to their benefits plan. Much of the job involved running the colossal computer system, which in those days consisted of a mainframe in Chicago.

“It was nightmarish,” Mancinelli recalls with a laugh. “It was a mess. But the Local in Hamilton said they wanted to buy their own computer. I said ‘If you do that, I hope you’ll consider me.’”

Lo and behold, Mancinelli was offered the job in his hometown and it became his responsibility to formulate the comprehensive record-keeping and computerization of the union’s benefits plan. Fast forward to 1984, when another tremendous opportunity presented itself whereby headquarters in Washington, D.C. was offering to pay for a full one-year scholarship at Harvard. Feeling he had nothing to lose, Mancinelli decided he’d put his name into the hat, and really didn’t think much more about it. He’d recently become engaged and had just purchased a beautiful century-old home on the Niagara escarpment in Hamilton with his then fiancée, to which he and his wife still live to this day. It was later that summer when Mancinelli got the surprising news that he’d been accepted to Harvard.

“It was a long-shot and I wasn’t even thinking about it,” he remembers. “I got a call first, saying ‘heads up’ and then the letter came.”

The incredible opportunity to attend Harvard that September meant leaving behind his future wife and their newly purchased home.

“I went down to Boston for the full school year but I came back a couple of times because of the house,” Mancinelli smiles. “There were a couple of emergencies – including one night when the oil ran out. And I had to take economics again, for a third time. It got easier the more I was exposed to it.”

The Harvard experience is one he’s carried with him his entire life. To maintain competitiveness in the trades and for his members to maintain their competitiveness as opposed to the competitiveness in the non-union sector, or people working under the table – there’s all sorts of interesting activities happening out in the working world. Mancinelli believes you’d be a fool not to pay close attention to the economics and the ability of LiUNA’s contractors to maintain the level of employment that his members enjoy.

Executive Office

After a number of years of learning about the various aspects of the union, Mancinelli eventually decided he would like to run for office. The positions are all very much politically driven and he first chose to run for Recording Secretary.

“It was the worst possible job in a union because you have to take the minutes and the minutes are so important – you have to be perfect,” he points out.

Mancinelli had already cultivated a strong reputation at LiUNA for his outstanding work with the benefits plan, not to mention his father’s reputation that preceded him. He became deeper involved in many of the union’s core issues and provincial negotiations and became the President of the Provincial Council in Ontario, a position he still holds to this day. Intelligent, with charisma and charm and a naturally gifted public speaker, he’s the ideal man to be leading the Central and Eastern Region.

The people of Hamilton have benefitted greatly from having Joseph Mancinelli as one of its citizens, as he has taken a lead role in a number of the union’s largest redevelopment initiatives in the downtown core, including the restoration of the former CN Rail Station into LIUNA Station and the development of LIUNA’s long-term care facilities. In 2009, a new regional head office facility was built in Oakville, the first Silver Certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) office building in the area. Although his job requires a lot of travelling, he tends to split his office time between the Hamilton and Oakville locations.

Urban Gridlock

The topic of gridlock and its effects on a number of regions in Canada becomes more contentious with each passing day, and it’s no different for a business executive and leader of a labour union. Nowhere is it worse in all of Canada than southern Ontario, which is now the third most congested area for driving in North America, behind only New York and Los Angeles, but worse than Chicago. Along with an imperative need for vastly improved highway infrastructure comes the issue of having a lack of land with which to make these necessary enhancements. But there is one relatively recent initiative that has just recently piled on and continues to expand, making traffic matters worse and leaving Mancinelli shaking his head in disbelief.

“The groups that are responsible for all the bike lanes had good intentions, but truthfully it was just not very well thought out,” Mancinelli bluntly states. “I don’t think you can sustain a community with all the bike lanes we have.”

He uses his own city of Hamilton as an example, where a number of major streets have been reduced by a lane now dedicated for bikes for the handful of cyclists that may use it throughout an entire day.

“In January and February when we have gridlock and nobody is on a bicycle because it’s snowing out, those lanes are still non-functional,” he reminds us. “I for the life of me don’t understand that concept, because it just doesn’t make any sense. We have to be realistic about what we can do when it comes to transportation infrastructure in southern Ontario because it is not Virginia or California or the south where they can get away with doing stuff like that.”

There is no denying it causes a level of interference with traffic that is next to impossible to justify when you take into account inconveniencing thousands of vehicles for literally a handful of cyclists. Mancinelli promises that LiUNA will continue to lobby in greater detail to ensure these types of projects are done properly in the future. Taking 10 to 20 cars off the road in favour of those individuals riding a bicycle doesn’t make the tiniest of dents in helping save the environment or cut down on traffic congestion – and in fact with the bike lanes the gridlock becomes even worse.

“We are not against bike lanes, but need to be realistic about what can be done,” he says.
Similarly, on the continued theme of valuable and very limited space, and what should be done with it, the only major entrance into Toronto’s downtown is the Gardiner Expressway. There were some groups hoping that parks could be put up in its place and traffic could survive on an expansion of the Lakeshore.

“I find that absolutely ludicrous,” Mancinelli says. “Whoever comes up with these ideas isn’t living in reality. They are living in text books and a dream world that has nothing to do with practicality.”

“I’m 57, and when I was in high school Mississauga had 38,000 people,” he recalls. It is now approaching 800,000, but there are no new roads or highways with which to move people from one end of the city to another. That means city streets become more clogged with each passing day.

“We haven’t kept up with the explosive growth of the communities surrounding Toronto let alone Toronto itself,” Mancinelli states. “I don’t think governments have been fast enough to find solutions to the problem. We don’t have healthy communities now due to gridlock and cars bumper to bumper – it’s ridiculous.”

There is no denying the Gardiner Expressway is inadequate for today’s requirements and an expansion in some form must happen, but Toronto urban planning hasn’t provided long-term intelligent solutions. Starting as far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s is when they first should have been looking 30 to 40 years down the road, rather than reacting to problems as the crop up. While it could be argued nobody back then could have had a sense for how large Toronto would grow, the signs started becoming more and more evident years ago now.

“Condos should not have been built as close to the Gardiner as they are,” Mancinelli says. “Look, we built the condos so I’m not talking about the work, but realistically they shouldn’t have been built that close to the Gardiner or the lake either.”

Now there is literally no green space, but had there been any saved, it could have been used for expansion of the Gardiner and the city could have enjoyed some green space along the waterfront, much like Chicago. Instead, there is no view of the water – just gigantic concrete buildings.

“Chicago always had strong leadership,” Mancinelli says. “We haven’t had that strong leadership in Toronto or Ontario either and urban planning is horrendous.”

The most likely options would be to bury pieces of the Gardiner underground, which would allow two tiers of traffic to be moving at the same time. Another idea Mancinelli has been advocating for quite some time would be to have a highway system over top of the rail line. That way the entire Gardiner would be dedicated to traffic heading into Toronto with the new overhead highway handling all the traffic going westbound out of the city. Another way to alleviate congestion on the roadways is to provide a better public transit system in the GTA.

“Toronto is the only major city, with perhaps maybe the exception of Sao Paolo in Brazil, that doesn’t have a subway system,” Mancinelli notes.

“We’ve got a couple of subway lines but it’s not a system.”

Paris has a subway system from the 1880s and is now expanding its system by an additional 200km of line. Billions are also being spent on upgrades in cities such as London and Rome.

“Here we have a modern city – Toronto – and we’re arguing over a couple of extra lines,” Mancinelli says in disbelief. “Something is wrong.

Governments have to start realizing that if they don’t start looking 20 to 30 years out, they’re in trouble.”

To do its part, LiUNA has sponsored a number of symposiums on infrastructure including events at the Board of Trade.

Mancinelli just returned from a business trip that took him through several European countries including Portugal, and it was a stark reminder of how far ahead some of those nations are with respect to infrastructure despite the fact they are often referred to as poorer countries compared with our living standard here in Canada. It might mean running some of the public transit on a deficit to some degree for the first number of years, but it relieves the congestion of vehicles on the roadways, which saves time and money.

Expansion of the roadways is essential, because even although a number of people will take public transit if it is improved, there are still thousands of people who will remain in their vehicles; not everybody will get on the train.

Mancinelli is also a firm believer that a mid-peninsula corridor for the Golden Horseshoe area of southern Ontario is an absolute necessity. It’s another one of those potential infrastructure projects that has been mired in political debate. An alternative route is now being proposed that would not cut into the Niagara escarpment, which was the main reason why the city of Burlington was always so steadfastly against the project.

“My understanding is that the new route will bypass the escarpment,” Mancinelli mentions. “That being the case, Burlington is in favour, along with the other municipalities. So we’re saying build it. It’s going to take at least seven or eight years to get a shovel in the ground anyways.”
The QEW is in the most prime agricultural land that we have. The land above the escarpment is not prime. Why would you want to expand the QEW other than the fact it’s already there. You could have two parallel roads going to and from Niagara. Leave the fruit belt alone before it’s all gone.

“We’re lobbying heavily for that new mid-peninsula corridor. If you build that highway, it will be huge for economic development,” Mancinelli says.

Hamilton International Airport is already a gigantic intermodal hub of business activity and for logistics companies such as Purolator and FedEx. Mancinelli sees no better setup than having a highway nearby that goes straight to Buffalo as a gateway into the United States.
“This would be long-term economic activity. That keeps people working and buying goods.”

Future Growth

In order for LiUNA to continue to prosper and be relevant the way it has for so many decades, Mancinelli believes there needs to be a prominent swing in the demographics.

“This organization is built on the shoulders of giants, many of them from 1903 and moving forward into this new era of doing things in a more innovative way. I want to see younger people coming in,” he states. “I also would like to see some of the political initiatives and lobbying moving forward.”

According to Mancinelli, the recent Ontario municipal elections have created a political atmosphere that has the potential to pay dividends and move in the right direction.

“I think with Tory in Toronto there is a hope he can bring Council together,” he says. “With the Ford administration, even although we were not opposed to a number of his platforms – in fact we liked his transportation infrastructure platform – he couldn’t bring Council together. There was just so much antagonism between Council and the Mayor’s office you couldn’t get anything done.”

Mancinelli and LiUNA lobbied heavily for the casinos in Toronto because of the great potential tourism aspect to go along with Toronto’s reputation as being a top-flight international base city. Like many others, Mancinelli believes Council turned it down because Ford was in favour of it. He’s hoping to reignite a number of initiatives so that many of the previously talked-about projects that were turned down will resurface, including the waterfront development.

“We’ve got new mayors everywhere, which we’re quite happy about,” he says. “In 10 years we should have seen a lot of progress made. That should be around the time I leave the organization. With government lobbying, you won’t get anything done in one shot. It’s like hammering away at a nail before it goes all the way in.”

Personal Life

Mancinelli and his wife have raised five children, all of whom are now young adults ranging in age from 19 to 27; the two youngest are boys, the three eldest are girls. They also have two grandchildren, both from his eldest daughter, who works with a benefit plan administration working with pensioners. His middle daughter is in public relations, and the youngest graduated from fashion management and is working in that industry. Mancinelli’s fourth-born is a special needs child. He has Down syndrome and is 22.

“He has been a blessing in our family,” Mancinelli warmly says. “To have someone like him with so many hidden talents and a character like an angel I think has done wonders for our family. His name is Enrico, just like my father.”
The youngest attends Brock University and enjoys business, although his handsome good looks may land him some other unexpected opportunities.

“Recently he went to help my daughter on a photo shoot by carrying some of the heavy equipment,” Mancinelli tells us. “People on the set believed he had ‘a look’. Now he’s been asked to do a movie shoot as a walk on for a movie in Shreveport, Louisiana. The biopic is called “I Saw the Light” – the story of Hank Williams, the legendary U.S. country music star who died tragically at 29 after a hard life with alcohol and other assorted personal problems.

“I’m always supportive of my children, but I want them to learn from their experiences, whether they are good or bad,” Mancinelli espouses. “It will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

The walls of his office are filled with numerous framed awards and plaques denoting his multitude of achievements and accolades over the years, but a recent ceremony this past summer is still poignant in his mind. On May 28, Mancinelli was honoured with a star on the Italian Walk of Fame in Toronto along with well-known actor Joe Mantegna, political cartoonist Andy Donato and legendary recording star Gino Vannelli.

“That was wonderful,” he shyly smiles. “I was a little star struck by the company I was with. Gino Vannelli would have been my contemporary in the 1980s. He was a powerhouse; I have his albums. Donato, because of my past with illustration and animation was my thing. When I was working in construction for those summers the Toronto Sun was always sitting in the trailers. I’d always look at Donato’s political cartoons and they were the best – so funny. He was my favourite. In my house, there was Criminal Minds and Joe Mantegna and all his movies from the past including Godfather III (as Joey Zasa). I was star struck. Here’s a labour leader from Hamilton with these guys. You feel a little sheepish as well and a little out of place and overwhelmed but very proud at that moment of my father’s heritage. I was born here, but knowing what he went through and I love that story – the story of an immigrant coming from a country not knowing one word of the language spoken to that new country to me is a pretty courageous move and I like to tell my kids that.”

All five of Mancinelli’s children, his wife, mother and two sisters were all there to share in the special event for such an accomplished, yet truly humble man.

“I would never have dreamt to have my name on a star in downtown Toronto.”