You won’t read these headlines in your morning paper: “Public Sector Union Leads on Job Creation and Helping the Environment. Government Agency Exceeds Goals.” Not very good copy from the perspective of opinion writers and editors.
You can’t entirely blame the media. It’s human nature. You notice the power outage, not the lights that go on every day. Still, the constant attacks on the public sector (and public sector employees especially) make it important to point out the things that do work.
So bear with me. Last year, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was asked by the city to take charge of an $8.5 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act program to weatherize the homes of low-income customers. The nonprofits that typically do the work didn’t feel they had the capabilities.
Brian D’Arcy, Business Manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 — the union that represents most LADWP workers — saw an opportunity to work with the Department to kick-start an 18-month training program that would address the problem of an aging LADWP workforce. The “Utility Pre-Craft Trainee Program” would link L.A.’s struggling communities with careers in the utility at a time when 40 percent of Local 18’s 8,000 members were at or near retirement age. These trainees would be an ideal workforce for the weatherization program.
Working “behind the meter” was new to the department. It took time to put the training program in place – and to establish systems to outreach to customers. Journeymen who were experts in one occupation needed to be retrained. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on the grant. The state agency overseeing the program — and the L.A. City Council — grew nervous about the unspent funds.
During the ramp-up period, “failure is not an option” was the contagious mantra employed by one of the Local 18 business representatives, who knew the importance of quality training. She and her Local 18 colleagues worked tirelessly with management, city staff and community groups to launch the program even as they joined community groups in advocating for its expansion.
Fast forward one year. LADWP has weatherized 2,800 homes, exceeding the goal of 2,500. The state has praised the quality of the work done by IBEW Local 18 members.
Earlier this year, I visited a worksite while the Sierra Club was filming a video about what the group sees as a model program. The work crew was beaming with pride.
Steven Saffell, a trainee who described his work replacing and caulking inefficient windows and installing attic insulation:
This job has changed my life dramatically. I’m able to support my family and my newborn baby, which I wasn’t able to do at my old jobs. I was struggling to get by, and now I’m not really having to worry about that because I make a good income and great benefits for my family.
Just as moving was the response of the couple whose Sylmar home was being weatherized. Their wariness at having their home invaded by strangers gave way to jubilation as they watched their louvered windows replaced and witnessed the professionalism of the crew. As coffee brewed, the woman told me how important this work was because her husband suffers from respiratory problems. This can be a serious matter in the San Fernando Valley where temperatures regularly reach the triple digits in the summer and heat waves can be deadly for the sick and elderly.
The trainees earn $16 an hour plus benefits. They range from veterans to the long-term unemployed to a mother with grown children returning to the workforce. The first group of 35 Utility Pre-Craft Trainees have become advocates for expanding the program on their down time, which is scarce. They do hard physical work all day and test preparation at night so they can be ready for the civil service exam they must score well on to become eligible for permanent positions such as electric station operators, meter setters and steam plant assistants. With several hundred Local 18 members retiring every year, there is ample opportunity to grow the program.
I’ve had the privilege to watch the evolution of this program up close. It may be tedious to say so, but I’ve seen committed and hard-working union staff and members, committed Department managers and, yes, happy customers.
I could bore you now with a story about the great education my son is getting at an LAUSD school and his hard-working, dynamic teacher. But maybe that’s enough good news for one week.