New York, NY – From the concrete canyons of New York City to the hollers of West Virginia, smart phones have emerged as the best organizing tool American workers ever had. Why then, are they now also being blamed for undermining, perhaps, the quintessential feature of trade unionism itself — apprentice training.
When #CountMeIn organizers assembled trade unionists outside Hudson Yards developer Stephen Ross’ digs at 10 Columbus Circle ahead of this year’s NYC Labor Day Parade, everyone was instructed to immediately text a number to get the latest updates on future demonstrations.
Last winter, on their way to inspiring educators in Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona and beyond, striking West Virginian teachers in 55 counties across the state maintained communications and galvanized solidarity utilizing the social media hashtag #55Strong.
In union headquarters and meeting halls across the country, the ongoing discussion is how best to engage the rank & file using social media. Smart phones are the vehicle driving it all.
But there’s an insidious downside, too — one that, so far, has defied an easy fix.
“The most important part of an apprenticeship is what you learn in the field,” UA Plumbers Local 1 Director of Training Arthur Klock recently told LaborPress. “Well, if you don’t develop a mentor/mentee relationship between journeymen and apprentice, they don’t get any training in the field. And that relationship is breaking down almost to the point of failure.”
“Smart phones — these wonderful, magical devices that we all have — are now interfering in normal processes like apprenticeship,” Klock says.
Each year, organized labor and its signatory partners spend millions of dollars providing apprentices with intensive classroom instruction, resulting in the best educated, most qualified men and women in the workforce.
If you don’t develop a mentor/mentee relationship between journeymen and apprentice, they don’t get any training in the field. And that relationship is breaking down almost to the point of failure. — Arthur Klock, UA Plumbers Local 1 Director of Training
But classroom instruction is only one aspect of the eduction process that typically takes four or five years to successfully complete.
“When I was an apprentice, two cinder blocks and a plank was where we had our lunch — and you’d listen,” Klock says. “The old-timers told their stories and you laughed. You heard stories about years ago, you heard stories about today, and you also talked about the trade. You learned —every day at lunch you learned. Nobody talks at lunch anymore. They sit and scroll with their finger on the phone.”
Howard Styles, IUOE Local 94 training director, says that excessive smart phone use amongst apprentices has become a significant issue, as well.
“Yes, we do our best to minimize usage, but it is a problem,” he says.
According to Klock, excessive smart phone use is pervasive — from the firehouse to the boardroom, and needs to be addressed.
“Everybody needs to be concerned about this,” he says. “If I have plumbers telling me this, and I have electricians telling me this, and I have firemen telling me this — I’m not talking about just one trade, I’m talking about society in general. Something has gone badly wrong and we’re going to be sorry.”
Retired Local 46 Ironworker and Blue Collar Buzz Co-Host Bill Hohlfeld agrees. After concluding a decades-long career on the job, Hohlfeld served as a training instructor for the union and now teaches at Rockland Community College. He calls smart phone use “an addiction” that “robs” young apprentices and students of indespensible interpersonal relationships.
“It’s an addiction that needs to be broken,” he says. “Every time you turn around, they’re on the phone — to the point where you want to scream.”
Without the benefit of traditional mentor/mentee relationships where journeymen take apprentices under their wing and impart years of experience and knowledge, while simultaneously solidifying the fraternalism that lies at the beating heart of the trade union movement — Klock warns apprentices run the risk of being reduced to mere “tools.”
“It’s a passing of knowledge; if you have no relationship with that person, you don’t pass knowledge — you give orders,” he says. “Bring that stuff over here; carry that here; do this; get out of the way. You use the apprentice like a tool, instead of treating them as if they were your nephew, or your son or daughter. You’re just using them as a tool because you have no relationship with them. That’s what’s happening.”