Plumber apprentice Garrett O’Brien of Waterford
Garrett O’Brien of Waterford is a third year apprentice at the Plumbers Union training school in Summit Township and works for the Wm. T. Spaeder Company.
Jack Hanrahan, Erie Times-News
Garrett O’Brien grew up watching his father, uncle and grandfather work as members of Laborers Local 603 in Erie.
“I saw my father and grandfather come home dirty and sweaty at the end of the day,” he said. “It made me appreciate the clothes on my back, the toys we had and the roof over our heads.”
He was intrigued, undeterred by what he saw.
“It may seem old-fashioned, but that was the perfect life for me, earning a fair wage,” O’Brien said.
Today, at the age of 28, the Waterford man is at least partially following in their footsteps as a third-year apprentice for the Pittsburgh-based Plumbing Union Local 27, which also has a school in Erie.
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That puts O’Brien in a decided minority of Americans as we head into this Labor Day weekend. After peaking at about 35% in the mid-1950s, the proportion of U.S. workers who joined unions fell to 10.8% in 2020. The share was slightly higher in Pennsylvania at 13.5%, according to figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite declining membership across the country, another set of numbers continues to advocate for union membership. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers earned an average of $1,095 per week in 2019. Their non-union counterparts, meanwhile, made $892.
Those higher wages are part of the reason why some continue to prefer a union climate.
Scott Slawson, chairman of the 1,000-member Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America at Wabtec, said other reasons are just as important.
“I think we’re starting to see a trend across the country where people are tired of being exploited,” he said. “They are tired of working for less and saying nothing. Times change. People are starting to stand up for their rights.
“That’s why many companies have a hard time finding people to work,” he said.
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A deeper look at the benefits of unions
There is, of course, widespread disagreement about the benefits of unions.
While a report While the Economic Policy Institute shows that union members were more secure in their jobs during the pandemic, others have long pointed to another trend: the departure of manufacturing jobs into so-called right-to-work states.
O’Brien, who began his career in retail and restaurant management during high school and college, went on to work as a salaried employee at what was then GE Transportation.
After losing that job as part of a wider series of cuts, O’Brien joined the local workers’ union.
“I enjoyed it,” he said of that first union experience. “(But) It wasn’t the path I needed for my long-term goals.”
The seeds of a new career were planted when he worked as a laborer with union plumbers on the Erie Insurance project in downtown Erie.
“I was interested in the way they handled things, the way they planned things,” he said.
At the time, O’Brien said he knew nothing about plumbing. Today, he is in the third year of a five-year program, dividing his time into 40 hours of weekly on-the-job training and classroom sessions held two or three times a week.
For some, union training programs offer a viable alternative to college, said TJ Sandell, president of the Great Lakes Building Trades Council, an umbrella group that includes carpenters, boilermakers, steam fitters, plumbers, roofers, insulators, cement and masons, metallurgists, ironworkers. , elevator repair technicians and other specialized professionals.
“The reality is that all of our programs are self-funded and funded by membership,” Sandell said. “We don’t take taxpayers’ money. We don’t have student loans, none of that.”
Major construction projects, including the Warner Theater, highway projects, and multimillion-dollar renovations at a number of nearby schools are making Sandell feel good about the future of the construction industry.
In addition, he is confident that union contractors will continue to bring in their share of the jobs.
“We have the best-skilled people in the industry,” he says. “There’s a demand for it. Many groups recognize that when you have a school job that has to be done between June and August, you need to have skilled journeymen on that job who can do that work in a very tight timeline.”
For his part, O’Brien knows that not everyone values unions or the union movement.
“I just think there are a lot of people who don’t know what the union stands for and (that they) are the people who brought us the 40-hour work week,” he said. “I think a lot of it is because people see us as greedy.”
O’Brien, who works for the WM. T. Spaeder Co., said he earns a good training wage based on a percentage of a journeyman’s wage.
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O’Brien said he is learning and is confident the result will be worth the investment of time and sweat.
A journeyman plumber makes good money, especially in a place like Erie, where wages are usually lower than average, he said.
“We (also) have a solvent pension plan and a good benefits package,” he added.
For now, O’Brien said he’s learning his craft by working for jobs for local school districts, the City of Erie Housing Authority, and the UPMC Hamot Patient Care Tower.
O’Brien says he’s still learning, still going to his foreman with questions. But these days he plays an increasingly useful role when he goes to work.
“There’s a good balance between the things I know,” he said.
There are challenges to this career that he has chosen. Injuries happen. Bodies wear out.
O’Brien said he is happy to work for a company that is doing its best to minimize the threat of injury by requiring employees to begin targeted stretching exercises every day.
“I am an asset to my company and they treat me like they want to take care of me,” he said.
O’Brien understands investment. He makes one of his own, betting that his commitment to a five-year apprenticeship program will lead to a well-paid and fulfilling career.
He also likes to be part of a tradition.
“I come from a background of trade unionists,” he said. “They’ve been some of the most honest, hard-working men in my life. That’s something I base my life on.”
His life and career are still a work in progress, but O’Brien said his goals are coming into focus.
“I want to settle in and create the perfect family life I’ve always dreamed of,” he said.