Mario Oliveira was working as an organizer for the continent’s largest construction union in 2015 when he was called to his supervisor’s Toronto home for a meeting.
There had been tension between Oliveira and his boss, Frank Martins, over the low number of construction workers Oliveira was signing up as new members of the Labourers International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 183.
Martins was pressuring Oliveira to forge membership cards for workers unwilling to join LIUNA in order to meet required quotas, Oliveira claims in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit he has filed against the union.
As tempers flared during the meeting, Martins pulled out a gun and pointed it at Oliveira, according to Oliveira’s statement of claim and an independent investigator’s report commissioned by the union.
Martins “bent down and pulled a handgun out from a small safe and pointed it at me and positioned himself in a shooting stance, arms forward and straight and into his line of vision,” Oliveira wrote in a complaint to the union in April 2016.
“I stood there at the door stunned and staring at him pointing the gun firmly at me.”
In a recent interview, Oliveira, 51, recalled Martins warning him, “‘If you f – – – me over, this is what you’re going to get.’ Then he walks across the room and pulls out a box and gets out a handgun and then he points it at me.”
The incident is among allegations of intimidation and threats that have swirled around the union for decades.
Oliveira filed a police report last month after nuts on one of his car tires were removed, causing his car to shake and drift on the highway. He also alleges that during a union nomination meeting days later, there were open calls for members to spit on him and his supporters.
Allegations contained in Oliveira’s wrongful dismissal suit — which claims nearly $730,000 in damages — remain before the courts and haven’t been proven.
In its statement of defence, LIUNA says it hired employment lawyer John McNair to investigate after it received Oliveira’s complaint in April 2016. McNair concluded that Martins “had engaged in various acts of harassment against (Oliveira) and further concluded that Martins had, in fact, brandished a gun at (Oliveira) in Martins’ home on November 19, 2015.”
Following McNair’s investigation, Martins was fired for a “pattern of abusive, intimidating, threatening or bullying behaviour” and his involvement in providing “inaccurate, false or misleading information” to legal counsel and the Ontario Labour Relations Board, according to his dismissal letter.
In its statement of defence, LIUNA denies all responsibility for Martins’s actions as well as all damages claimed by Oliveira.
McNair’s report calls Oliveira’s testimony “credible and forthright” and dismisses Martin’s assertions as “inherently self-serving and improbable.”
“The pistol was a model similar in appearance, at least to an untrained observer, to a centre fire semi-automatic pistol,” McNair wrote. “(Oliveira) could have had no way of knowing that the gun was not a more lethal kind of weapon … This was an aggressive display of blustering and intimidation …(Martins) brandished the gun in a manner that was reasonable to interpret as a threat of physical harm.”
The report concludes that Martins engaged in a “pattern of conduct which included pressuring organizers to include inaccurate information” in applications with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
Martins is also named in Oliveira’s wrongful dismissal lawsuit. He has not filed a statement of defence, but in an interview with the Star he denied the allegations made against him.
“I never pointed any guns at nobody. I never threatened anybody. I never forced anybody to falsify documents,” he said. “There is the pressure they put on you, but it’s still up to you as the individual for what you do.”
Martins, 50, said there was a BB gun sitting on his kitchen counter when Oliveira and a colleague came to his home in November 2015, but he says he never pointed it threateningly.
“They asked me about the gun and I said, ‘Guys, this is not a real gun. Does it look like a real gun?’ Why would I have a real gun sticking out? Then I put the gun in a safe.”
As for claims of harassment and bullying, Martins said he pressured Oliveira in order to help him.
“I was constantly always telling him, ‘Buddy, if you don’t get your stuff together you’re going to get fired.’ That was the truth,” he said. “I was a little bit harder on him than everyone else, but that was only because I wanted him to be successful …
“Because my management skills might be a little bit different than everybody else’s, that makes me a bad person? I don’t think so.”
Four days after the first gun-pointing incident, Oliveira’s statement of claim alleges it happened again, this time at LIUNA’s Coburg office while Oliveira was filling out his weekly reports.
“While holding a gun pointed at (Oliveira’s) head, Martins stated that (Oliveira) had better be filling out membership applications, even if they were false,” reads the statement of claim. “On both occasions, Martins intended to frighten and intimidate (Oliveira) by pointing the handgun at him.”
In an interview, Oliveira said, “all of a sudden there’s something pointed at my head. I realize Martins has a gun pointed at my head. I couldn’t breathe. I froze at the time. Then he makes comments about, ‘You better be putting in some cards,’ meaning falsifying applications and getting them in. He inferred it was coming from the top.”
Martins denied the second incident even occurred, saying he never brought a gun of any kind to the office.
Oliveira went on medical leave and was eventually fired on Feb. 3, 2017.
Both Oliveira and Martins say they are now concerned for their own safety. Both say they have been followed and targeted — including an incident Oliveira reported to Toronto police after discovering several nuts on a front wheel of his car were missing as his car began shaking violently on the highway.
“The wheel was off the axle,” said Oliveira. “Two weeks ago, a car was following me inches from my rear. And last week, another guy was following me. I did a couple of manoeuvres to see if he was following me.”
During a union nomination meeting this past April, when Oliveira was seeking a position on the union executive, he says he and several colleagues who were running against the current leadership were threatened and bullied. One member of the executive board, speaking through a microphone, told members to “spit on us,” Oliveira said, adding he and others were forced to leave.
He said he learned later that he had been removed as a nominee after he left the meeting.
A complaint letter filed to the union by Oliveira’s lawyer the next day says: “The nomination process was fraught by irregularities and threats of violence.”
LIUNA general counsel John Evans did not respond to questions about the incident.
In January, Evans claimed in a letter to Local 183 that Oliveira had engaged in “a pattern of misconduct” including leaking records to the Toronto Star and making “heinous allegations” against a LIUNA manager. He recommended that Oliveira be “expelled for life” from the union. Evans declined to comment.
Martins insists he was fired unfairly by LIUNA as a result of false allegations. He says he never took legal action against the union out of fear for his safety and that of his family.
“I’ve seen what LIUNA does to members that fight them and I wasn’t going to be one of those guys,” he said. “I was afraid for my life and my family’s life … Intimidation onto their membership is a big part of LIUNA. They preach on democracy but it’s dictatorship all the way through.”
Oliveira, who was recruited by LIUNA in 2011 after a 22-year career as a personal support worker at Sunnybrook Hospital, said in interviews that demands from his LIUNA supervisors to falsify union membership cards or be fired were routine.
“(Martins) was telling me to lie and get the workers to lie and say they were employees of the company when they weren’t. It’s prevalent. People who don’t exist are put on these cards who don’t work for the company. They go on the list. It’s a joke. It’s a farce.”
In other cases, there was pressure to forge signatures of employees who chose not to sign a union card.
“Let’s say a guy works at a company and … he’s scared. So I sign the card. Nobody is going to challenge that. The companies would never know. They don’t get that information. And the worker isn’t going to know I signed the card for him. It’s an easy crime.”
And the financial incentive is immense. Successfully unionizing a construction firm represents potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in union dues collected from employees and tradespeople. In addition, their employers are required to make contributions for pension and health benefits, training, organizing and other programs.
Oliveira says he never forged the membership cards.
In January 2016, questions arose about the membership cards signed by employees of a construction firm LIUNA was attempting to organize.
Nelson Melo, president of LIUNA Local 183, told Oliveira “to falsify union membership cards if necessary in order to get the required quota,” reads Oliveira’s statement of claim. It says Melo threatened Oliveira’s job if he “did not document the requisite number of new members whether he had to falsify the membership cards or not.”
Melo declined to be interviewed for this story.
There were other red flags raised by Martins’s behaviour, Oliveira claims in written statements to the union and court documents.
“Martins regularly transported cash payments from the Cobourg office to the Toronto office of Local 183 in a small black bag as part of his duties and at the direction of Local 183,” according to a reply filed in response to LIUNA’s statement of defence. “The cash bag was prepared by the office staff of Local 183’s Cobourg office … Martins told other Local 183 employees that he carried a gun when he transported the cash.”
In an interview, Martins said he was only joking. “Did I say that? Yeah I did … Did I have one? No it did not … I never had a gun. I was doing it as a joke.”
Robert Cribb is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org