We Try It! Joining a Labor Union

In December of 2013, I was unemployed, unhappy, and desperately trying to figure out what to do about both. I needed to find a new job, and yet I was hesitant to chase after any job that was too much like my old one, because it had been a major supplier of misery and anxiety for me. I wanted something new and I was up for anything, so when my dad said I should apply for an apprenticeship for the union he is retired out of, I did.

I often joke that I have a decidedly weird resume. Retail, math tutor, industrial electronics sales, children’s art instructor, purchasing and logistics for a chemical company. It’s not the focused career path of someone who knows what they want out of a job, that’s for sure. All I really had to guide me as I began questing again for a new job was that I craved stability and I didn’t like any of my previous jobs all that much. To that end, an apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was a pretty good fit. I liked working with my hands, and unions do provide decent pay and benefits.

Applying for an apprenticeship was more like applying to college than a job, perhaps for good reason. You are accepted by the training school, who then sends you to the contractors who employ you. I had to get my high school transcript, which felt a bit goofy, as I have a bachelors degree and high school graduation was over ten years ago. There was a standardized test to pass to prove that I could do algebra and read. Then there was an interview where I sat across from a panel of men and confirmed that yes, I do really know that an industrial high voltage wireman’s work is dirty and dangerous and yes, I do still really want the job.

And then I waited. And waited. Unlike colleges, unions only call up a new class of apprentices when there is enough work to justify adding more workers to the field. Business is actually moving along fairly well at the moment, so I only waited nine months. My father waited ten years to join the union. But at the end of August, I got a letter telling me to take a physical and report to the school. I was in.

It was, of course, the worst possible timing. I was maid of honor in a wedding that weekend. An out of town wedding. But opportunity does not knock twice, so I made it work. I rolled home from my first job assignment on Friday afternoon, washed all the dust and sweat off, and drove six hours to central Illinois. Saturday morning, I was only mildly more conscious than your average zombie as I sat in the salon for hair and makeup, but I was there, god damnit.

Money was tight for a while, too. While joining a trade union is a relatively inexpensive way to retrain for a new career, there was still a fair amount of money I had to pony up. Two hundred dollars worth of tools, $400 in textbooks, $200 in tuition, $170 for work boots. The boots were an extra problem because I had to try three different stores before I found some in my size. Women’s workwear is apparently a specialty item most places and available by mail order only. I can shimmy into men’s pants, but the smallest size of men’s boots is still too big for my tiny lady feet.

dirty work boots
My tiny lady foot work boots with exactly one day on the job’s worth of dirt on them…

This was offset though by the fact that you are working while training and earning a wage. The starting wage isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. And you get raises at regularly scheduled intervals provided you keep up with your classwork (as opposed to whenever the benevolent dictator of your office decides you deserve one as had been my previous experience). If you are lucky, you land an overtime job. Though overtime is kind of a mixed blessing in my book. The extra cash never hurts, but there’s no point in making all that money if you don’t have any time left to spend a little of it. I’ve found I kinda cap out at 60 hour weeks. Any more than that and I start to feel real burned out, real quick.

But that leads me to my favorite part of my job. Nothing lasts. As jobs get finished, you move on to new work. There is no more sitting at a desk trying to put out the latest fire while the smug young Republican at the desk next to you brags about his golf league and realizing with a sense of dread that this day is exactly like the one before and will probably be repeated again tomorrow. Working outside in a Detroit winter sucked, but winter isn’t forever. That job is over and now I’m working inside a building with intermittently working air conditioning (and lots of sweaty men). This too shall pass. I’m never doing anything long enough for it to become more than a mild level of boring, but most of the work is interesting.

selfie of a woman with pink hair sticking out due to the effects of static electricity
And during that dark winter I did find that pulling my balaclava off real fast gave me anime hair.

Which is not to say I think this job is perfect fit for me. I had a spell there in winter when every day started with five layers of clothing the outermost being a pair of insulated bib overalls and a Carhart jacket that left me feeling depressingly unfeminine. I’ve always liked painting my nails, but knowing that any paint job would be destroyed in minutes on the job has left me with little motivation to do that anymore. Cuts, calluses, and bruises are now a permanent part of my aesthetic. Dirt removal now occupies a significantly larger space in my schedule than it ever did in retail or office work. It’s all stuff I can learn to live with, though. And I find workarounds. I dyed my hair hot pink, because now that I don’t have to be office work respectable, who the hell can stop me. Fact is, I like my job most days, and perfect isn’t achievable.

I feel optimistic for my future. I couldn’t really say that two years ago. It’s not all been because I joined the union, but joining the union helped get me there. So I guess I’ll add apprentice inside wireman to the bizarre resume, but hopefully I won’t be needing it any time soon.

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Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

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