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Photo: Pete Wright

For military vets, unions offer camaraderie, careers and help adapting to civilian life

Laura Asher may be the tallest thing for miles.

Asher had climbed multiple ladders, lightly struck her helmeted head on a protruding hose, maneuvered through a small, greased aperture, and taken a seat at the controls of a luffing tower crane, roughly 80 feet above Illinois. She was far enough south that the skyscrapers of Chicago had given way to flat former prairie which seems to run, flush and forever.

The crane and its canary compatriots tower above the landscape, rivaled only by the wind turbine trainer and the stacks of shipping containers across a large pond from the William E. Dugan Training Center, where the Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers trains apprentices and journeymen.

Her first time in the crane was more harrowing than this one, both because of the nervous energy that comes with a new piece of equipment, and the winds that were causing the tower to lurch. Asher drew on confidence cultivated by her Army training, the maxim “adapt and overcome,” verified with her instructor that the unsettling sway was typical, and got to work.

Before she was a trainee in Illinois, Asher was an Army medic in the family clinic at Fort Irwin and in an ambulance platoon in Baghdad, where she spent two years before transitioning to civilian life in 2007. The change was challenging. Lacking the structure, support and camaraderie she felt in the military, Asher found herself struggling.

“When you ETS [expiration of term of service] out of the Army, or any military service, there’s such a feeling of loss,” Asher said. “Trying to find your place. Because you always knew your place in the military.”

She felt desperately alone. To become a nurse, Asher would need to go to school. That meant long hours, debt and less time to work to support her son, who she’d been raising alone since he was an infant. She was working as a phlebotomist when she realized that it wasn’t working, that the life she wanted for her child wouldn’t be possible if she stayed in the medical field.

Asher’s father was an operating engineer, a member of the union, and he suggested she look into joining. With help from Helmets to Hardhats, a nonprofit that connects veterans with job training in the construction sector, Asher put in her application and was accepted to Local 150’s training program. The application cost $25 in processing fees and the training is free.

Laura Asher served as an Army medic in Baghdad and other locations. When she left the armed forces, the Helmets to Hardats program sponsored by several trade unions helped her train for a new job and transition to civilian life. B. David Zarley

Millions of post-9/11 veterans like Asher—including those who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, against ISIS, and in the myriad other actions which constitute the War on Terror—have come home and transitioned from military to civilian life. While women made up a mere 4 percent of the veterans from the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam eras, the veterans from the second Gulf War and onward are 18 percent female, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in March 2017. Both male and female veterans’ unemployment rates hover around the 5 percent mark.

The study also found that in 2016, Gulf War-era II veterans, as they’re called, were unemployed at a rate similar to their non-veteran peers with one exception: men aged 25-35, whose unemployment rate was 6.6 percent compared to 4.9 percent for non-veterans. Veterans were also far more likely to work in the public sector than non-veterans, especially for the federal government.

“When you [leave] the Army, or any military service, there’s such a feeling of loss,” Asher said. “Trying to find your place. Because you always knew your place in the military.”

This massive pool of workers is especially appealing to the skilled labor unions. Currently, Asher can be seen on televisions around the region in a commercial enticing veterans to train with the Local 150. Helmets to Hardhats, the trade union-sponsored nonprofit that connects veterans and soon-to-be veterans with job programs in the construction sector, was borne out of unions’ recruitment efforts.

“The veterans are coming from all over the nation and coming home,” said Robert Schwartz, senior program manager of Helmets to Hardhats. “So how do we reach out to them and let them know about these opportunities that we have for them for their next career?”

For the unions, veterans bring valuable benefits as a labor pool, both tangible and intangible.

“For any of the armed forces, any of the engineers … those are the jewels,” said Jim Sweeney, president-business manager of Local 150. “We get one of those guys? That’s like an automatic in. They have those skill sets already. They’ve already been trained.”

Veterans without engineering experience, like Asher, bring an attitude conducive to the job.

“The military mindset is we show up on time, we do the job, we’re listening, we’re trainable,” said Helmets to Hardhats’ Schwartz, a veteran of both the Navy and the Army National Guard. “With the trades, a lot of it has to do with discipline. Hey, guess what? The job starts at six in the morning. You got to be there to work. You have to be able to understand a chain of command, which military people understand.”

Part of Laura Asher's training has included learning how to operate a luffing tower crane such as this one, B. David Zarley

Helmets to Hardhats introduces vets to an array of training opportunities. There’s Veterans in Construction Engineering from the National Electrical Contractors Association and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Veterans in Piping from the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States, Canada (UA for short), and SMART Heroes from the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation (SMART) union. Some organizations run intensive courses on military bases across the country.

“We put them in concentrated training at the school while they are still in the military exiting process,” said Jim Page, administrator of the International Training Institute, which does the training for SMART.” The veterans indicate where they would like to live upon discharge, and SMART Heroes helps them find schools nearby to become indentured apprentices.

A union recruitment program was how William Attig, the executive director of the union veterans council for the AFL-CIO, became a pipefitter. “That gave me a shot at the American dream,” Attig said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership fell yet again in 2016. Anti-organized labor policies, such as right-to-work legislation, have contributed to a drop in labor union membership and influence. In 1983, the first year complete data is available from the BLS, union membership was roughly 20 percent; in 2016, the percentage was about half that. While Attig says that outreach to veterans is not specifically designed to staunch the bleeding, the increased commitment to reaching vets could help bolster union numbers. Organized labor advocates could also find in veterans a strong rallying point for their cause.

“Everybody likes to talk about wrapping themselves in the flag and what they’re doing for veterans,” Attig said. “But veterans are workers. So when you attack worker’s rights throughout the country, you are attacking a major group of the veterans population.”

Aspiring members of the Union of Operating Engineers first send in applications, which are scored by a panel. The top prospects come to a training center, like the one Asher went to south of Chicago, to be evaluated on machines. This is as much about their attitude and adaptability as it is their handling of the equipment, as no previous experience is necessary. The best performers move into an apprenticeship program, where they’re trained at the facility and indentured out to worksites. After completing a set number of hours, they graduate to becoming journeymen.

For its part, the Local 150 gives veterans points on their application for their service, and takes as much advantage of its direct entry mandate as it can. Essentially, the Department of Labor says that up to 20 percent of the applicants admitted directly to their apprenticeship training program can be veterans; the 150 makes sure to use every last slot allotted.

What the unions offer in return are problems to be solved, the chance to work with one’s hands, freedom from a desk and camaraderie.

“There’s a real sense of family and support and somebody having your back,” Asher said of the union. “There was always that in the military. The people that you worked with you lived with, and they were your friends, they were your family in the Army. You get that back in a union. You get that brotherhood back. You get that somebody who is going to stand up for you, somebody that will fight for you.”

For Local 150, that fight can extend into the darkest of theaters. Brian Roland, the Local 150 training center coordinator-administrator, is a former Marine and has personally helped veterans in his program coping trauma and struggling with civilian life.

“We do deal with a lot of vets that struggle,” Roland said. “They’re young vets, they just got out, and I’ve spent many hours on the phone during the evening talking to some of these young vets about coming back to the civilian world and becoming a productive member of society. Because when they come out, a lot of them miss it. They want that brotherhood, that camaraderie.”

Of course, union wages and benefits are enticing lures as well. Depending on the job and experience, union members in the trades can earn over six figures a year, a healthy salary that eventually gives way to a robust pension. According to Local 150, there is no pay discrepancy between union members, no gender gap or stratified pay scale tied to race. Every union member makes the union wage. For an immediate financial benefit, many of the training programs are free. The goal is for veterans to leave with skills and connections, not debt.

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Asher says her father was as proud of her receiving her journeyman card as he was the day she joined the Army. Since joining Local 150, she has bought a house, and she recently booked her first family vacation with her son—a cruise.

“This union has given me a future, and a hope, and the ability to provide for my family,” Asher said, her eyes welling with tears. “When there was no hope before.”