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These young ironworkers are betting on new technology — and traditional unions — to achieve their American dream

By Tara Bahrampour,

Luke Buckingham hopes becoming an ironworker will lead him to a comfortable life, even as more of those jobs become automated or go overseas.

DUNDALK, Md - Luke Buckingham gazed hungrily at the motorcycle belonging to one of his fellow apprentices at Ironworkers Local 16. A brand new Suzuki GXXR 1000 with a cobalt finish, glittering against the broken sidewalk.

“Oh man,” he said. “That thing’s a beast. Someday, someday...”

To Buckingham, a bearlike 25-year-old with buzzed blond hair, the bike was a symbol of the middle-class life he hoped to someday have - the waterfront house, the boat, the monogrammed bedsheets he imagined himself sliding between. It was why he dragged his 6-foot, 260-pound frame out of bed before dawn to climb along iron beams and weld columns for $21.36 an hour, minus the four percent union tithe. Someday, he’d get the superintendent position; someday maybe be a foreman, “just being the top dog.”

It was his third year as an apprentice. Twice a week, he and two dozen other apprentices drove to this cinderblock shop just east of the Baltimore city limits to learn drilling, welding, rebar, and the values of a union man.

Outside the shop, the country seemed to be at war over how much longer their kind of work would be around. Manual jobs were being edged out by automation and overseas competition. Donald Trump had vowed to bring them back, extolling the working class, which somehow had become shorthand for white Trump supporters.

But the Local 16 apprentices saw something different. Mostly white, but also African American, Hispanic, and from other ethnic groups, they reflected the true makeup of America’s working class in 2017, which was closing in on half minority. Hell, as a Jewish American, even Buckingham didn’t fit the Trumpian mold, though he had voted for him.

But the apprentices had more pressing concerns than politics, dogged by questions their elders had never had to face. Would there be enough work to make their four years of training worth it? Was there still room in America for a blue-collar worker to make a good life?

They weren’t going to wait on Trump. Instead, they were taking their futures into their own hands. Baltimore wasn’t booming like Washington, D.C. or New York, but there was one bright spot: the possibility of a major wind energy project that would create local jobs and help them get closer to their middle-class dreams.

Soon the apprentices would head to the Maryland Public Service Commission to push for the plan to be approved. And they were counting on men like Jimmy Gauvin, who heads their apprenticeship program, to guide them.

Michael S. Williamson

The Washington Post

Ray Luis, part of an ironworker apprentice program at a union shop in Baltimore, gets in some welding practice at one of several welding booths at the ironworker training center.

No promises now

Gauvin, 62, doesn’t generally go in for sentimentality. But what had happened to Sparrows Point, he said, was “like a dagger in our heart.”

He’d started working there in the 1980s, when the site buzzed with tens of thousands of workers. “You were always burning and welding, tearing something out, putting something in.”

Back then you’d see mill after mill after mill, each engaged in a different part of the steelmaking process. The tallest blast furnace pumped out smoke that was black, red, or brown, depending on what was being made. Bethlehem Steel, at one point the largest steel plant in the world, had supplied material for both World Wars, and produced the steel used to build the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building. Three times a day, the shift changes swallowed and disgorged meninto the archipelago of bars and sandwich shops outside the gates.

Local 16, a five-minute drive away, had 1,400 dues-paying members. But when Gauvin retired as a full-time ironworker in 2008, the Point was dying, and in 2012 it closed altogether.

“The steel industry shrank because the technology became out-of-date,”said Thomas Kochan, co-Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research. “The old blast furnaces weren’t replaced with new technology as fast as in China, Korea, and India, and the U.S. industry became less competitive.”

The union’s meeting hall fell silent, aside from the occasional retiree shuffling through. And the Point? To the apprentices it was a landscape of gauzy nostalgia, a symbol of a time when ironworking promised a future.

Now, there were no promises. The system was top-heavy, with 300 active members paying for 600 retirees. They needed more apprentices, but the work was dangerous, and brutal on the body. And there was no guarantee of jobs.

Michael S. Williamson

The Washington Post

A sad reminder of the job losses in the Sparrows Point area is the abandoned office complex that had been used by Bethlehem Steel.

Then, last year, the union’s business agent heard about a proposal to build wind turbines off the Maryland shore.

The U.S. Energy Department has called for ramping up wind-powered electricity to 20 percent by 2030, and the Ironworkers International Union has begun offering turbine training and certification to union ironworkers. Bringing such a large project to Baltimore would be “a real cause for excitement,” said Ahmer Qadeer, a Rutgers University researcher who works on energy and labor issues. “It represents a lot of work and it represents a growing industry.”

Gauvin didn’t want to get too excited. “When somebody calls the union hall to hire an ironworker to make a day’s wages, then that’s real.”

Still, it sat like a coin in his pocket, something to run his thumb over. If the turbines were approved, it would mean that when he retired from running the program in a year or two, he’d be leaving his apprentices with the prospect of steady work.

That, to him, would be a big step toward making America great again.

But Ocean City homeowners worried the turbines would ruin their views, and they had clout. So Gauvin went from classroom to classroom with a message for his apprentices.

Go, he told them. Go to the hearings and speak in favor of the turbines. Their futures depended on it.

Saved by the union

Buckingham liked the idea of guaranteed work. He was also personally grateful to Gauvin. After all, when Buckingham had been without a job, Gauvin had let him take the entrance exam for the apprentice program even though it was three months into the course.

Buckingham hadn’t planned on being a ironworker. After high school he started studying engineering at Frostburg State University, then dropped out under the pressure of balancing school, a part-time job and helping to care for his younger brothers. A local general contractor then took him on, offering him a path to making good money.

He loved the job, but then his fiancee decided to move to Chicago and he quit to join her. After just a week in the new city, the engagement fell apart. “I came back to Baltimore and begged for my job back, but he said, ‘No, you’ve got to learn your lesson.’”

For a couple of years he drifted, until a friend of his mother’s suggested Local 16’s apprenticeship. He passed the exam, and was soon going to jobs by day and attending classes at night.

For Buckingham, the union held a lot of the appeal of the fraternity he’d joined in college -- the structure, the brotherhood, even the rules. In the shop, as he and his buddies lifted a 616-pound I-beam or held a magnetic drill steady, he absorbed lessons on why it was worth it to pay dues, and how a union man’s work was higher quality and ultimately more lucrative than that of his non-union counterparts.

Michael S. Williamson

The Washington Post

Luke Buckingham, an apprentice in the ironworkers training program, hopes to save enough money to buy a house.

Michael S. Williamson

The Washington Post

Taaz Robinson is in the ironworkers training program, trying to get a fresh start after serving prison time.

Now, living in a basement room he rents in his father’s Canton home, Buckingham’s decison to quit the contractor job still gnaws at him. He knows he is prone to rash actions - he wasn’t even sure whom he’d vote for in November until he stepped into the booth. His father was outraged. But the foreman at his job was a Trump supporter, and Buckingham looked up to him.

Buckingham also liked that Trump was all about making money. He understood that. That’s what he wanted for himself.

Some of Buckingham’s fellow apprentices razzed him. Trump was the worst kind of boss, they said, a rich man who hired non-union workers, a racist.

The day after the election, Taaz Robinson, a fellow third-year, posted a picture on Buckingham’s Facebook page of Donald Trump as an infant being dandled by Vladimir Putin.

Like Buckingham, Robinson, a square-jawed African American with the word “Blessed” tattooed across his chest, had also made some rash choices. After graduating from high school in Aberdeen, he turned down a college lacrosse scholarship, began dealing drugs and wound up in prison.

He was paroled in 2013, married and had a second and third child. Despite his record, Local 16 was willing to take him in. He felt, as he put it, “in a positive light for the first time in my life.”

He and Buckingham had that gratitude in common, and though Robinson avoided talking politics with co-workers, he could tease his fellow apprentice about their political differences. After Robinson posted the Putin picture, Buckingham good-naturedly hit the “like” button.

But election chatter quickly receded in January in the face of shocking news: Local 16 would be merging with Local 5 of Upper Marlboro, one of several mergers of ironworkers unions around the country. The 16 members felt blindsided. Local 16 had been around since 1904; it was part of their identity, like a tattoo. What kind of message did it send, that their union could no longer stand on its own?

Compared to this, national politics seemed distant. Ironworkers’ fortunes rise and fall with the local construction economy, and for Baltimore workers, the more important vote was the one coming in the spring about the wind turbines.

A united front

On an overcast Saturday in March, Buckingham walked into the cafeteria of Stephen Decatur Middle School in Berlin, near Ocean City. The drive from Baltimore had taken over two hours on his day off, but he wanted to stand with Jimmy and his brothers.

Gauvin stepped up to the microphone. He recounted his own ironworking journey, which began in 1978. “I was able to provide for my family, put my children through college, pay for their weddings.” Noting the apprentices in the room, he said, “This is right in our backyard down there at the Trade Point Atlantic, and if it would come into play...these gentlemen would have the opportunity the same as I did.”

Some men from Local 16 spoke, along with environmental groups, business organizations, and other unions supporting the project. Homeowners spoke, too, about views and electricity rates, which, at least initially, can rise after a switch to wind energy.

Back in Dundalk, Gauvin treated the group to dinner at Chili’s. Buckingham ordered a cheeseburger and two Budweisers.

He had liked the way Gauvin had threaded his own life story together with those of his apprentices. Watching him speak, he’d thought to himself, “Jimmy’s the man!”

Two months passed. On a Tuesday in late May as the apprentices filed in, Gauvin summoned them to the shop’s central room.

They jostled for space along a horizontal I-beam. Gauvin raised a hand to shush them.

“I don’t know if you all heard about the vote a few days ago on our offshore windmills,” he said.

The room grew quiet.

“It went our way.”

The men erupted in cheers and thumbs-ups.

Two companies had been been approved to construct 77 turbines off the Maryland shore, pending federal sign-off. The Public Service Commission estimated the project would create nearly 9,700 jobs and spur over $1.8 billion in in-state spending. The companies would be required to use local port facilities and invest in a steel fabrication plant. And they would have to fund nearly $40 million in port upgrades at the Point.

“So our little part in it, going down to testify, it worked,” Gauvin said.

There was no telling how big this could be. It could spark a chain reaction, with buildings going up at the Point, turbines built and installed, windmill maintenance ongoing. However it fell out, he told them, “It’s all man hours for us.”

Then he ordered them back towork.

As Gauvin spoke, Buckingham was in the union hall’s meeting room, giving blood. He staggered into the shop afterward, wondering what the fuss was about. It wasn’t until later that the news began to sink in.

“It gives me job security and it helps the guys that are coming in,” he said. “The kids growing up in Dundalk and Edgemere and Sparrows Point, they’re going to see that and they’re going to go, ‘Well, that’s a job. Maybe I’ll go do that.’”

Michael S. Williamson

The Washington Post

Luke Buckingham takes a drag off a cigarette during a break as an apprentice in the ironworking training class.

A half step into the middle class

On a breezy afternoon trucks pulled in to the union hall parking lot and apprentices climbed out. They smoked cigarettes and passed around a box of pizza. A first-year sat on a car trunk and strummed a guitar, singing, “The Weight” as a briny scent wafted in from the Point.

Fifty feet above, Buckingham and another apprentice stood in a birdsnest, painting the union hall’s flagpole. At some point, as part of the merger, they would move from this building. But for now it was still their home.

Recently, Buckingham got pre-qualified for a loan to buy a starter house; now he needed to save the down payment. He had gotten an offer to work for a non-union company, but had quickly declined.

“I’d be missing the union, the sense of belonging, the value, the relationships,” he said. With the union, “You have like a concrete ‘this-is-what-you’re-worth,’ and nobody can tell you that you’re not.”

The birdsnest lowered him to the ground. The sun was low and golden, and Buckingham’s clothes were splattered with paint. He stubbed out a cigarette and dropped it into an empty water bottle. He looked up at the flagpole, white against the blue sky. Then he crushed the plastic bottle with his hands and headed in to class.


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