Journeymen Electricians – John Brining – 1993

Journeymen Electricians – John Brining – 1993

I have worn many hats: journeyman, foreman, instructor, and union official.  I began my career fresh out of the Air Force in 1970 as an Apprentice Wireman. After having completed 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 400 hours of related classroom instruction, I graduated to journeyman status. Soon after receiving my journeyman “ticket” I had the opportunity to “run work” as a foreman. Over the course of the following twelve years I worked for many different contractors serving as a Journeyman, Foreman, General Foreman, Area General Foreman and Estimator. The type of construction ranged from strip stores, high-rise office buildings, hospitals, manufacturing plants and power generating stations.

 I have been a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 701 for the past twenty-three years.  Local 701’s jurisdiction encompasses all of DuPage County just west of Chicago, Illinois. The local union’s membership has currently reached 1,635 members of which the majority are involved in electrical construction. Our members are involved in every aspect of the electrical construction industry including residential, retail, commercial, industrial and institutional. We control over 75% of the construction market from single family homes to thirty-story office buildings.

And I’ve worn many different hats. Aside from my “field” experience, I also have had the good fortune to serve my local union as an electrical official. I have twice been elected to the office of Executive Board member and elected as a Delegate to the Convention and now hold the appointed position of Business Representative, serving in my eighth year. My experience and personal knowledge has also grown while serving as a Political Lobbyist and Chairman of our Joint Labor/Management Safety & Health Committee. Furthermore, I have served as an Instructor for our Joint Apprentice and Training Program for the past 14 years, teaching two evenings per week. Having worn many different hats has provided me with a wealth of knowledge, experience and resources from which to drawn from for the ethnography.

 An apprentice full of anticipation promise and fear. I can remember beginning my career as an apprentice electrician full of anticipation, promise and fear. Not only fearing the inherent physical hazards associated with electrical construction work, but also a fear of perhaps not being accepted. I was to learn that acceptance was measured in terms of skill, work ethic, attitude, daring, knowing my place, and being able to fit into the social structure of the crew.  Each of these required constant attention.

 You literally live, eat and sleep the trade.  From beginning to end the work and the relationships that grow from the experience tend to dominate your life. You become so involved in the subculture of being a union electrician that you literally live, eat and sleep the trade.  It is not unusual to see fathers, sons, uncles, cousins and friends gathered at social functions celebrating a holiday or special occasion and most are electricians.  These are the people you work with laugh with, fight with, drink with and support in every way. The relationships do not end at the job site, but extend to every personal and social level.

Putting a crew together: It’s about friendships and reputation.  When a foreman puts a “call into the hall” for men, that call will either be accepted or rejected on the basis of friendships and reputation.”  The type of job conditions and duration tend to be of secondary consideration.  Unlike in Royal Blue, the union has an exclusive hiring hall. The contractor is restricted from arbitrarily soliciting workers for each job. Therefore, a good foreman cannot always depend on relationships from past jobs but have a reputation as being a “good pusher”.  Desirable qualities are fairness, skills, experience, a sense of humor and the ability to keep his workers supplied with the best tools, information and materials available. A foreman with a nick-name like, “Killer Kane”, “Contractor Pimp”, “Prick” and “Tough Taskmaster” will often find himself without the services of the most productive and skilled workers, even in lean times.”  However, when a foreman does put together a crew of “good hands” the job becomes more than just a “day’s work”.

Journeyman classification: controlling your destiny. From apprentice to seasoned journeyman, each worker assumes his or her role in the construction process. Apprentices understand that there is much to learn and that the job assignments will most likely be of a supportive nature. Someone has to dig that ditch, carry materials, assemble hundreds of fixtures, haul trash and provide for the needs of the journeyman. Journeymen usually ask to be assigned to tasks that they enjoy;  some ask to be assigned to “big pipe”, installing heavy conduit, switch gears, transformers; some to “roughing in”, “trimming devices”, and “control work.”  Each of these classifications of work allows the journeyman to control his own destiny so to speak. Each electrician takes great pride in his work and his or her personal collection of their own tools of the trade” used to accomplish much of what is done on any job. Therefore, a journeyman who is accomplished as a “big pipe” man will have a special protractor level that is not used by anyone but himself or his partner. A “control man” may have an expensive multi-meter that, again, is off-limits to other journeymen.

Encouraging each other to stay on top of the game. Earning and maintaining the confidence and respect of your fellow workers is of utmost importance. To stay on top of the game, many electricians participate in ongoing journeyman training classes sponsored by the J.A.T.C. After a long day on the job, journeymen spend two to three hours in the classroom learning such new skills as cable splicing, fiber optics, motor control programmable control, CPR and National Electrical Code requirements. They encourage one another and find great satisfaction in the experience.

Talking a good game is suspect.  Respect and job satisfaction are always held in high regard. But respect must be earned through performance, not by bragging. In fact, the electrician who is always talking a good game is more often than not ridiculed or held suspect. As a young apprentice, I remember one such journeyman nick-named, “Bullshit Bob”. Bob had been everywhere and done everything, all before the age of thirty. To hear him talk, there was not job too tough or complex for him. The other seasoned journeymen on the new hospital job avoided working with or around Bob and would challenge most of his claims at our lunch time sessions. Because I was an apprentice and had no choice in the matter, I was assigned to work with Bob and to my surprise Bob proved to be one of the most innovative, skilled and productive journeymen that I had ever worked with. However, only when “Bullshit Bob” began to tone down his bragging was he to be treated with respect and accepted by the other men.  The African Kung! tribesmen in “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari,” used very similar peer pressure to humble those who bragged about their skills or exploits, even if grounded in truth. Perhaps construction electrician in DuPage County are not that different from the Kung.

Pranking and solidarity: the story of “Old Gene”.  As described in Royal Blue, horseplay and good humor play an important role in the everyday work life of construction electricians. For the most part the work is both physically demanding and dangerous. Humor can serve as a form of entertainment or diversion on the job. As an example, on a hospital addition/remodel job, I can remember how the men found great pleasure in pranking our union steward, one GR. “Old Gene” had been around many years and took his union duties very seriously.  But, unfortunately for Old Gene, he also tended to be gullible, believing almost every story told by one of his grieving union brothers. Therefore, he was constantly being led on one wild goose chase after another. One such incident involved a young apprentice named John and his journeyman partner, PS. They came to Old Gene complaining that the foreman was forcing them to work in the same room with dead people. Old Gene immediately became enraged and asked to be shown the work area so he could file a formal grievance. J and P took old Gene to an area of the hospital being renovated and pointed to a dark room with several gurney-type wheeled beds inside. When Old Gene went into the darkened room, he saw a body on a gurney covered by a white sheet, with only a bare hand exposed. Unbeknownst to Old Gene, this was not a corpse but another live journeyman electrician. When Old Gene approached the body, the electrician slowly rose from the bed, white sheet and all. Old Gene climbed over J and P to escape, only to fine the rest of the crew roaring with laughter outside the room. Soon Old Gene was laughing himself and claiming he was on to us all along. I was to work with Old Gene on several jobs over the next ten years and witnessed several other pranks at Old Gene’s expense and each time he would say this was the last time they would get him. However, I believe Old Gene enjoyed the attention as much as the electricians enjoyed each prank.

Core values: The tradition.  To the average construction electrician in DuPage County, the core values of the workplace are grounded in both the nature of the work and the union that holds them together. On the job, as well as in their personal relationships, they tend to be up front, direct, brutally honest and competitive. The friendships and bonds formed on the job carry over into their personal lives and often last a lifetime. The respect for and support of the union is unsurpassed by any other building trade. The union provides a sense of belonging and security providing jobs , pension, health and welfare benefits, training and social functions like picnics, golf outings, Christmas parties, etc. When called upon, the average union electrician in DuPage County will give of his time to support charities and legislative initiatives, or help another brother in need as was the case when a devastating tornado ripped through our area. Hopefully the next generation of Local 701 construction electricians will carry on the fine tradition.

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Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

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