July 26, 2017
The nature of employment in a large company can make a person feel like “just another number.” Research shows that successful employment hinges on skills and training, yet most Americans think the responsibility to obtain job skills rests solely on each individual. With the ever-increasing cost of education, and difficulty of finding solid employment, workers find themselves at a loss when it comes to finding a good job with a solid path to advancement.
Trade unions offer a strong alternative, a career that recognizes workers as individuals and addresses their needs. Rich Sweeney, President and Business Manager of Iron Workers Local Union 399 says of his union: “When you can help somebody, you do.” Most people know the union ensures each worker is entitled to health benefits, vacation, pension and annuity, but it also goes above and beyond to provide opportunities and support beyond the job at hand.
Sweeney’s own career demonstrates the union’s commitment to supporting its workers. He began as an apprentice in 1982, and worked in the field for 17 years. After an automobile accident caused by a careless driver left him unable to work, many building trade organizations rallied to his side to raise money to help. It was the opposite of the antipathy felt by many injured office workers. “I’ll never forget what they’ve done for me,” says Sweeney. When he was able to return, Sweeney was brought on to the office side of operations, and worked his way up from organizer through the ranks to Business Manager and President.
Upward mobility is not uncommon in the union. Every position, from foreman to superintendent to executive board begins in the apprentice program. As Sweeney says, “There’s a lot of room for growth, we just need guys who want to get involved…You can have a good career.”
At the core of the union’s identity is fairness for workers, a credo that extends to job placement and wages. New job contracts go to those who are able to do the job and have had the least recent employment. Female iron worker Lissette Rossi states, “I never have to be concerned that men are earning more than I am. You are guaranteed you get the standing rate for the job.”
An active part of the Helmets to Hardhats program, Local 399 also helps veterans forge new careers and return to civilian life successfully. “We’ve had a very high success rate with the military,” says Sweeney, “They’re very good people.” The rigor of military life lends itself well to the difficult work of Local 399, and veterans find great success in the program. Several upcoming graduates of the union’s apprentice program are in the Marine Corps.
Because sustainable employment is so difficult to obtain and the benefits the union offers are competitive, college grads are looking to Local 399 as well. Recent apprentices include graduates from Rowan College and George Washington University. They, too, see the benefit of the familial support of the union, as well as the solid wages and promising career path. “We have a lot of college grads,” says Sweeney, “whatever their degree was, they’re not making the money. They might be making thirty, forty thousand a year. As long as you’re working, this pays a lot more than that.”
Given the difficulties young adults face in employment, many union workers these days are encouraging their children to join the business. Coming from a family of union workers, having had the privilege of working side-by-side with his father on the job, and as someone who has seen most sides of the business, Rich Sweeney is living proof of the union’s opportunities and support. “There’s a lot of people that the unions really help,” he says, “it’s a really good thing.”