Dominic N. Fornaro, a former Baltimore steelworker and union leader who was Maryland's labor commissioner in the early 1980s, died Tuesday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center of complications from a fall. The Denton resident was 84.
Nick Fornaro was born in Clarksburg, W.Va., the eldest of five children of Italian immigrants. His family soon moved to Baltimore, and his father went to work for Bethlehem Steel Corp.
Mr. Fornaro attended city schools but left Patterson Park High at age 18 to take a job at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard.
In 1944, he enlisted in the Naval Armed Guard and served as a gunner aboard Liberty ships in the Atlantic and Pacific. One of his ships, the SS Queenston Heights, was torpedoed in the Persian Gulf, but he was not hurt.
Late in 1945, he returned to Baltimore and Bethlehem Steel. He became active in United Steelworkers of America Local 2609 as a shop steward and chairman of its education and political action committees.
"I think that he saw, when he went to work, the injustices to working people, and he didn't feel they got a fair shake," said Mr. Fornaro's wife, the former Dorothea E. Murray, who was a union secretary when they met in 1960. Mr. Fornaro's previous marriage had ended in divorce.
In 1961, Mr. Fornaro was elected president of the Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions, representing 150,000 union members. He worked on behalf of political issues and candidates favorable to labor, supporting efforts to enact a $1-an-hour minimum wage in Baltimore and leading a regional grape boycott to aid striking farm workers.
He lobbied the General Assembly to help bring about legislation that increased the number of state-subsidized construction projects paying prevailing union wages.
"He was very astute in the field of politics," said Ernest R. Grecco, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions. "He really believed in letting our members know the importance of voting for candidates who understood the needs and concerns of working men and women.
"You absolutely knew where you stood with the guy. He didn't sugarcoat anything."
In 1968, Mr. Fornaro was given the Labor Human Rights Award by the Jewish Labor Committee for his "deep belief in human rights and his dedication and devotion to the labor movement and humanitarian causes."
In 1974, Mr. Fornaro was elected president of the Maryland and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, representing 500,000 union members.
In 1980, Gov. Harry R. Hughes named him an assistant secretary for labor relations, his chief liaison with organized labor. It was a long-sought union foothold in state government.
"Nick was a real fighter for labor, no question about that," Mr. Hughes said this week. "He was sort of rough around the edges a little bit, but he had a big heart."
An old friend, former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert A. Pascal, said Mr. Fornaro was "a warrior" for the union cause. But it was never personal, Mr. Pascal said. Mr. Fornaro was always ready to negotiate, and his integrity was never questioned," he said, adding, "He stood by the labor movement with honor."
After three years, Mr. Fornaro was named state commissioner of labor and industry, supervising enforcement of laws affecting worker safety, state-subsidized construction, labor mediation and union elections.
"I'm sure that management felt there should have been somebody maybe more neutral, knowing Nick spent his life working for labor," Mr. Hughes said, adding that Mr. Fornaro "was very fair and willing to see both sides of an issue."
Mr. Fornaro was hired by Anne Arundel County in 1989 as a worker-safety coordinator, a job he held until his retirement in 2000.
In retirement, his wife said, Mr. Fornaro stayed interested in politics. He followed congressional hearings on C-SPAN, always had an opinion and never felt shy about sharing it.
As a youth, Mr. Fornaro played semiprofessional football and boxed under an assumed name to hide his prizefighting from his mother. He also loved golf, fishing and hunting, and was famous for his venison steaks and onion-packed salads. He last went deer hunting, with a son and grandson, two weeks ago.
Mr. Fornaro served on many public commissions and on the boards of many charities. He was a member of Wells-McComas Post 2678 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Edgemere and the American Legion's Dewey Lowman Post 109 in Arbutus.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at noon tomorrow at St. John Roman Catholic Church, 43 Monroe St., Westminster.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Fornaro is survived by three sons, James Fornaro of Pikesville, Nicholas Fornaro of Queenstown and Gregory Fornaro of Eldersburg; a daughter, Andrea Michelle Belice of Elkridge; a sister, Natalie Dice of Westminster; and nine grandchildren.