July 21, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
Queens, NY – Entering the ranks of Plumbers Local 1 is no easy task, but for those who have accepted the rigors that come with striving to be the best at their trade, it’s a decision they have never regretted.
Manny Torres, 27, spent about six years jumping around from plumbing shop to plumbing shop and generally getting “beaten around on money” before his tolerance for non-union bosses ran out, and he decided that the UA Local 1 Training Center in Long Island City was where he ought to be.
“[The bosses] would tell you they would pay you, and then they wouldn’t pay you – or they would promise to give you a raise, and not give you a raise,” the fourth year apprentice and AutoCAD specialist says. “I wish I knew what I know now when I was doing it back then as a kid.”
Craig Robey, 38, spent 11 years wandering in the plumbing wilderness before he decided time was no longer on his side, and that he had better start seriously thinking about his future. For him, the switch has been a revelation.
“It’s like playing for the Yankees now,” Robey says. “You really feel like you’re a part of something. And that’s what I like about it.”
A crippled economy and depressed job market convinced Erin Sweeney, 28, to shoot for a career that, while becoming increasingly diverse, still remains male dominated. The non-profit group NEW – Nontraditional Employment for Women, helped pave the way for the former image cataloging specialist.
“I had no idea what to do at that point because I could not find a job,” Sweeney says. “But, I though I’d give it a try. I like being handy. And it turns out that I really love this job, a lot.”
Very early on, Richie Dailey, 24, knew that he wanted a career as a union plumber. He applied to the Training Center and hasn’t once looked back.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” Dailey says. “I only have school once every two weeks, which is cool. We get paid to go to school – what’s better than that?”
Each year, the union invests about $3 billion in its apprenticeship program – and what it demands in return, is nothing short of a full commitment to excellence.
“Whether you work union or non-union, you do work hard,” Torres says. “But the school’s expectations are no bull – they do expect you to pass. If you don’t pass, you’re gone. They’re not going to hold your hand. It’s either you want it, or you don’t.”
Now into his third year with the union, Robey gets up at 4 a.m. to make the commute from his home in Huntington, Long Island, to the Training Center located at 37-11 47th Avenue. Getting back into “student mode” after being away from school for so long was a challenge – but one he was intent on overcoming.
“The school is far more difficult than I though it would have been,” Robey says. “Because of my age, I was in a different mindset. But I would have never learned what I have learned, remaining in the non-union sector.”
Despite the tremendous support she has received from the Training Center, Sweeney concedes that nearing the end of her third year apprenticeship, she has encountered a few “bad apples” on the job who have been resistant to female co-workers. Pushing through that, she now welcomes the opportunity to mentor other women.
“All women in the trade know that as a minority, you become something like a lantern,” Sweeney says. “You are automatically an example for other people, which is not a burden necessarily placed on the random white male apprentice. So, you have to have respect that you are an example to other women. You know the troubles you went through, and you want to help other women get through those same struggles. It’s an honor to do this work – and to help other people get through the same problems.”
Initially, many incoming apprentices are taken aback by the amount of math and science they must absorb to be a great plumber. Dailey certainly found that to be true, but he’s been able to excel, nonetheless.
“You do learn a lot of math here, which you might not expect,” Dailey says. “But it helps when you’re out in the field doing measurements and figuring out offsets. A lot of times, you know a lot more than the older guys because they didn’t get to go to school.”
While the personal experiences that initially brought them to the Plumbers Local 1 Training Center may be varied, and the paths they ultimately decide to take within the union are uncharted – for now, those nearing the final stages of their plumbing apprenticeships seem to have one fundamental goal.
“Before anything else, I just want to be a really good plumber,” Sweeney says. “And then, I’ll see where that goes.”