By MITZI HOFFMAN
In 1999 I moved from St. Louis to South Carolina for a job. I was born and raised the daughter of a union pipefitter (and granddaughter of union workers and great granddaughter of union workers) and had little knowledge of unions in other states.
For this reason, I was very confused to find that the word “union”, in South Carolina, was said in hushed and suspicious tones when said at all. When I pressed anyone, in attempts to understand the negative connotation, the conversation would usually abruptly end.
The man I’ve been with since 2001 is a carpenter I met while I was living in the south. I was shocked at both his wages and his hostility toward the concept of unions. The explanations I provided him regarding collective bargaining and the stories I told him of my own family’s experience went right over his head.
I did witness some level of understanding start to creep in when we visited my family in St. Louis. The trades have a level of respect in our area that would be considered completely foreign in his hometown.
The wage difference between the two areas was stark.
In South Carolina, a good carpenter was very lucky to make $14 per hour, and this was during a very good economy, before the tech bubble busted, before the mortgage bubble burst.
This $14 per hour that a good carpenter might make was generally cash under the table. The majority of carpentry jobs were cash jobs (and paid less than $14 per hour) and there is also little recourse for the carpenter should the contractor not provide the payment agreed upon (and this isn’t as unusual as you might think).
INJURED? YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN
The concepts of health insurance or vacations are virtually non-existent. That means that if the carpenter fell off a building and got hurt, he was fired and any medical expenses were the responsibility of the injured carpenter.
Unless one attends a vocational school for a trade at their own expense, there are no organized trade education or safety outlets. Because large portions of carpenters make less than $14 an hour, and they have no training or safety possibilities, there is a large portion of trades’ people who live in poverty.
Poverty breeds desperation and the people of the trades do not enjoy the level of respect that I witnessed growing up in St. Louis.
And in the south, that cycle continues because even those in poverty fear unions.
Despite the labor climate, I adored South Carolina and I still do. But, seven years ago my southern carpenter and I moved to St. Louis.
He enjoyed slightly higher wages until he joined the St. Louis carpenters union. He almost immediately converted to what he previously couldn’t comprehend. In his words “If it doesn’t exist where you are, you can’t understand it.” Or, as Thomas Paine said, “A mind once enlightened cannot again become dark”.
He has paid his dues (literally and figuratively) the last five years and considers joining a union the most life changing thing he’s done in his adult life.
Knowing that he can count on wage increases, health insurance, vacation pay, free education and training, life insurance and the many, many, many other benefits has transformed him and his opinion of unions.
The possibility obtaining all of these things while working in labor in the south is so minimal that it is reserved for very, very, very few.
I love that he has been able to enjoy these benefits – the same benefits that allowed my siblings and I to enjoy a really comfortable upbringing. I love that he is vocal about unions, echoing the same sentiments to his relatives back in the south that I used to try to convince him of so long ago.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
Two quick anecdotes relating to that last sentence:
During his training classes at the Carpenter’s school he is often 10-20 years older than his classmates. When he tries to explain how different the labor situation is in right-to-work states he runs into questions that show how little union states know about right- to-work states.
They will ask, “What is scale in South Carolina?” or “What type of vacation pay did you get there?” It’s all he can do, not to shout “There IS NO SCALE in South Carolina! There is NO vacation there!”
But just like they cannot grasp those concepts, neither could my boyfriend understand the concept of unions while living in the south.
WOW, $10 AN HOUR
A closing perspective:
His father called him last week from the south very excited about a new Volvo plant that was coming to their town. He was proud to deliver the news “This plant is going to pay their workers $10 an hour! Isn’t that great? AND the state is going to let Volvo off the hook for taxes for the next decade! I’m so happy the state was able to make that deal and the people will get those jobs.”
My union boyfriend’s response: “Dad, do you realize that if Volvo could have found a state willing to pay their workers less, Volvo would have moved there?“
All these years later, he truly understands and is passionate about workers’ rights.
By SHANE PELLERIN
Carpenters Local 97
I’ve worked in the construction field for over 30 years, starting back in 1984. Most of my time in the trades has been spent in right-to-work states. I moved to Missouri from a right-to-work state several years ago.
When I joined the Carpenters Union here in St. Louis, I was completely blown away by the change.
As a union member I was given the opportunity to have insurance (health and dental), vacation and pension, the chance to go to school and advance my knowledge and career. I never thought of being a carpenter as a career until I took an oath and joined a local.
SCRAPING BY WEEK-TO-WEEK
Under right-to-work laws, being a carpenter or tradesman was merely a way to scrape by week-to-week.
Worst of all, in a trade with so many perils, if I was hurt or injured, I was on my own. I heard the phrase “If you fall, you’re fired before you hit the ground” many times over the years.
Even if said in jest, this is how the workforce is viewed in these states: replaceable and expendable.
That is no way to build pride and self-worth in the people who build, customize and make structures habitable and profitable places for businesses and homes.
NOT A CAREER
Wages constantly hover between $10/ hour, with little room for advancement. This was hardly my idea of a career. However I’ve always loved the carpentry trade and take pride in a job well done and putting out the best product possible.
When I moved to Missouri and was presented with an opportunity to become a union member I did not know what to expect:
I was amazed by the world class training facilities, extensive safety programs, and the emphasis on being the best of the best.
I feel the pride and care I have always had in my work is finally rewarded and respected.
I’m proud to put on my hard hat and carpenter’s whites and know I’m going to the highest quality and best-run job sites in the world.
I also feel there is complacency among union members that these better, safer working conditions and living wages are the norm.
But as someone who has experienced both sides, I know they are not.
The union is the only defense we as workers have against the conditions I have described, and I do not wish to return.