July 16, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
Queens, NY – There are some 2,500 bridges in New York City – and those are just the ones with names. The precarious and always dangerous job of keeping each of them sturdy and upright largely belongs to the members of District Council 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. And the training that apprentices undertake to learn how to keep tons of structural steel safe and sound involves a heck of a lot more than slapping on a fresh coat of paint – it has to, with so much at stake. Some apprentices just don’t make the grade.
“I like to come in here and tell them they're all going to fail – and dare them to prove me wrong,” says Jack Kittle, political director, District Council 9.
District Council 9 routinely accepts hundreds of applications for the apprenticeship programs it periodically offers through the Finishing Trades Institute of New York, located in Long Island City. But the union is actually only looking for the relative few who are interested in more than merely landing a good “city job.”
“We can usually spot them on day one,“ says Kittle.
At one time, the District Council 9 political director was himself a bridge painter and an instructor at the Finishing Trades Institute. Since then, Kittle has helped shape the curriculum, and remains closely associated with the training program today.
Similar to other top-flight union training programs, the Finishing Trades Institute of New York is made possible through the participation of supportive contractors who understand that they are helping to develop the qualified workforce they’re going to continue needing in the future.
Tens of millions of dollars are spent on the training program annually, which also includes centers in Albany and Wappingers Falls. Construction of an additional training center on the island of Puerto Rico is also being discussed as a viable possibility.
Unlike some other union training programs, District Council 9’s Finishing Trades Institute of New York is unique in that it gives apprentices the opportunity to switch programs if they feel their initial choice wasn’t a good fit for them.
“Iron workers are iron workers,” says Gus Diamantis, bridge painter coordinator at the Finishing Trades Institute of New York. “If they don’t like it, where are they going to go? With us, because we are five trades, apprentices can come in as a bridge painter, and if they don’t like it, we can maybe transfer them into the commercial painters or the drywall finishers.”
Glazers, for example, are presently in high demand for their skill and expertise working with glass. And last year, Super Bowl XLVIII became a veritable boon for paper hangers who worked for months getting metropolitan area hotels ready for the five-day extravaganza held in New Jersey.
Even during the summer months, when students from the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills are left to take over the space, the interior of District Council 9’s Finishing Trades Institute located at 45-15 36th Street, is a veritable hive of activity, with each of the center’s participating finishing trades continually remodeling the space as part of their 3- and 4-year training programs.
One corner near the back entrance to the facility is notable for the darkened interior which deftly replicates the daunting working environment apprentices in the bridge painters program will encounter in the real world.
“When you're up on a bridge you’re not going to get much better lighting than this, so it's better to learn this way,” Kittle says.
The lead containment sheathing that encompasses modern bridge painting projects creates much of the gloom. Apprentices today must not only know how to properly sandblast old paint off of steel structures sometimes hundreds of feet in the air – they must also understand how to employ complex mathematical formulas to maintain “negative containment spaces.” These spaces are pressured in such a way so that contaminated particles won’t escape into the open air through a leak.
New technologies have also made waste disposal cheaper and more efficient than it was in Kittle’s day. Even the science behind paint application itself has become considerably more sophisticated and involved over the years.
Successful apprentices – some whom might not have enjoyed traditional schooling – must be well-versed in all of it.
Kittle walks through the facility freely talking about the electro-chemical reaction of rust and the metallurgy of the steel smelting process.
But he also talks about safety, and the protective training courses every apprentice and journeyman enrolled in the Finishing Trades Institute – but particularly those in the bridge painters program – must master.
Union members have lost their lives.
“There are so many different things that can go wrong,” Kittle says.