By Oliver Powell
An apprenticeship program described by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in Texas as an “earn as you learn” program for new electrical workers relies on stringent rules and contractual obligations to keep wages lower than the occupational average, mainly because private contractors are able to control the apprenticeship program and suppress the wages of apprentices.
Apprentices found that over time, their wages do not reflect the level of skill that apprentices and licensed journeymen within the program possess. After earning a journeyman license, one apprentice is earning $6/hr less than he qualifies for within the union on the basis of his licensure, and is contractually obligated to fulfill a 10-year contract with the IBEW under threat of a $10,000 lawsuit.
“After the second year, the contract does not benefit the apprentice,” the apprentice told Tribune. “So it gives you that $15/hr job right away, but it’s a huge catch-22. You end up giving them ten years of your entire life.” After eight years, if the apprentice is ready to leave the IBEW, the union still has the right to sue them for breaking the contract.
Private contractors financially control the apprenticeship program, and their profits pay the administrators who oversee it, influencing their decisions.
In order to fight these low wages and the threat of legal retaliation, the apprentice said, “We would have to organize. We just need a clear list of what we want, and all agree that ‘this is what we’re gonna do.’ We just have to defy our own union, and this whole contract. We need something new.”
However, if their bosses discovered that apprentices were organizing outside of the union, he told Tribune, “I believe [the contractors] would go to the union, and tell them to get us under control.” In order to have their demands met, he said, the workers would have to stand up and say: “We no longer recognize the IBEW.”
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