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How To Get A Union Job

By Tranette Ledford - Special to Military Times

Friday Jan 2, 2009 & February 2008  

Labor unions have transitioning service members squarely in their sights, organizers say, and for you that could mean better pay, benefits and job security as a civilian.

For skilled and nonskilled veterans, getting a union card and the benefits that go along with it is easier than you might think. You can even draw some GI Bill benefits while you train on the job.

But life in a union isn't without some risk. Strikes are a reality — think Hollywood writers — and individual merit can be overshadowed in a military-like, hierarchical work culture.

That said, now is a great time to look for a union job. Here's what you need to know.

Going union

Today's young service members are at least a generation removed from the rise of the U.S. labor movement, which peaked in the 1950s thanks to local organizers who fought to improve workers' rights.

Labor unions are still recognized as a political force and continue to advocate for their members.

For fifth-generation pipe fitter Craig Miller, a native of Washington state, the decision to join a union was easy. The former Navy engine mechanic served three years on ships before getting out as an E-4 in November 2006. Now he's a member of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada Local 597 in Chicago. It's among the major construction trade unions, with 326,000 members and more than 400 locals.

"When I got out of the military, I came to Chicago specifically to get into the union here," said Miller, who works installing pipe in heating and cooling systems. He pays union dues quarterly and says what he gets back is worth more than what he puts in.

"The union has your back all the way," Miller said. "They make sure we have excellent benefits, really good pay, free education and training. And if you're hurt on the job, the union is going to take care of you."

Unions today

Labor unions get their power through collective bargaining, in which workers negotiate as a group on issues such as pay, pensions and safety. The negotiations result in a contract, but if the two sides can't come to an agreement, it could mean union members go on strike.

The largest federation of unions today is the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, referred to most commonly as the AFL-CIO. It's an umbrella of 55 unions with more than 10 million members, including the United Auto Workers, International Union of Police Associations and American Federation of Teachers.

The benefits, according to the AFL-CIO, are higher wages, especially for women and minority groups, as well as better health benefits and pensions. Unions are good for business, worker productivity and the economy, the AFL-CIO says, and they help bring low-wage workers out of poverty and into the middle class.

But membership is dropping fast.

A little more than 15 million American workers are union members. That's about 12 percent — down from 20 percent to 24 percent from 1973 to 1983, according to Labor Department data.

AFL-CIO government affairs director Bill Samuels cites a number of reasons for the decline.

"The economy has changed, and you have a more mobile work force," Samuels said.

"Companies are outsourcing. There's a $4 billion anti-union consulting business. And employers threaten and intimidate employees against unions. They tell them the company will close or relocate if it's unionized and they'll lose their jobs. Or they threaten to fire employees who interact with union organizers or indicate interest in unions."

Of course, there's another side to the argument.

Groups such as the Center for Union Facts and the National Right to Work Committee spend their time publicizing what they consider abuses on the unions' parts — or at least their leaderships' — including coercion to join.

Analysis and trends

Ronald Ehrenberg is a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University, an economist and co-author of "Modern Labor Economics: Theory and Public Policy." Ehrenberg attributes the decline in union membership to other factors, too, including foreign competition, industry deregulation, fewer blue-collar jobs and a population shift to the Sun Belt states, where unions haven't traditionally been strong.

Union membership is greatest among men and government employees. In fact, those in the public sector join unions at a rate five times greater than private-sector workers.

Local government employees such as police officers, firefighters and teachers have the highest membership rate, according to the most recent Labor Department figures — 41.9 percent in 2006.

Those in financial fields, farming and forestry had the lowest at 3.5 percent.

Geography is also a factor. The greatest numbers of union members live in California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. States with the lowest rates of union membership are North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Texas.

Veteran membership

The International Union of Operating Engineers prefers — when all other qualities are equal — to bring in veterans as new members.

The group's "unwritten" preference for signing veterans up to its competitive apprenticeship program is only natural, said the union's communications director, Joe Brady.

"They just have a maturity about them that your average 18- or 19-year-old guy out of high school doesn't have," Brady said. "They bring a can-do attitude. They have a good background in teamwork, which a lot of construction is."

One nonprofit group has matched about 1,550 transitioning service members with construction unions in the past 10 months.

"This is a great industry for separating service members because it doesn't matter whether they have experience or don't," said Darryl Roberts, executive director of the Helmets to Hardhats program.

"Once you join a building or construction union, your military experience is recognized, and you enter the journeyman's program at your level. What you lack, you get trained for — and get paid while you train. When you complete the program, you can take it with you anywhere, get the highest ... dollar for your work, take your pension with you and carry over your benefits."

Going to work

Jose Murga joined the Navy in 2003 and got out as an E-4 in March. The Navy trained him in hydraulics and elevator equipment onboard ships. The union will further his training.

Murga returned to his hometown of El Paso, Texas, after the Navy and took a job with high pay but which required him to be on the road a great deal of the time.

"It didn't work well for my family," Murga said.

He looked around for jobs locally and found Helmets to Hardhats.

"The next thing you know, the union contacted me. Now I'm in an apprenticeship program and a member of the elevator union," he said.

As a member of the International Union of Elevator Constructors, the union will send Murga out on construction jobs.

"They'll keep me employed, going from company to company as an elevator technician," he said. "I just began in December, so I'll be on probation for the first six months, then my union wages go up and the benefits kick in."

Elevator installers and maintainers earn a median wage of $20.50 per hour, up to $34 per hour, according to the Labor Department. That could mean an annual salary of about $70,000 per year, not counting overtime.

Get paid during training

Most veterans placed through Helmets to Hardhats spend three to five years in an apprenticeship program on their way to becoming a journeyman in a trade, Roberts said. During the training, they're paid about half the going rate for a journeyman.

Veterans are allowed use their GI Bill benefit to supplement their income while also earning the union's wage for on-the-job training.

"The MGIB payments go directly to them while they're training," Roberts said. "They can also choose to earn an associate degree in places where colleges partner with us."

The down sides

The cons to union membership are debated.

You have to pay to be a member, for example — Roberts said the average is about $32 per month — but you get services in return for the expense. Members may receive a portion of their usual pay if they're ever called out on strike — a reality of life in the brotherhood.

There's also the perception that seniority rules can hold up career advancement.

Brady said the plumbing and pipefitting union counts seniority only when all other skills re equal.

"The unions are like anyplace else," Brady said. "Talent is recognized."

Roberts said service members may notice some similarities between unions and the military.

"Being part of a union not only guarantees the pay and benefits you deserve. You also find that when you're part of a brotherhood, you have the camaraderie you're used to," Roberts said.

Unions are recruiting

If you think a union could be the right fit, these tips can help you get started finding a job.

 Helmets to Hardhats

This national program specializes in connecting veterans and transitioning service members with construction trade unions. On the Helmets to Hardhats Web site, you can search for union jobs by location or keyword or learn more about the 15 participating construction unions.


On its Web site, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations maintains contact information and Web links for its 55 member unions. If you call a union, ask if there's a program specifically for veterans.

Union Jobs Clearinghouse

Unions advertise openings on this Web site. Search jobs by state.

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