The Industrial Relations Research Association    
Proceedings 2002    


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Joint Labor–Management Apprenticeship Programs:
The Issue of Access to Multi-Employer Training Programs in Chicago’s
Construction Industry


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign



      Historically, apprenticeships, not organizing, were the primary channel through which people come into the unionized construction workforce. But today, the average age of an apprentice is the late 20s; many are in their late 30s. The ageing of the typical apprentice, plus the changing linguistic (in Chicago, Hispanic and Eastern European) demographic of the US workforce, from which many “organized” workers come, put stresses on traditional apprenticeship programs. These stresses have the potential overall effect of pushing apprenticeship programs in the direction of organizing. This paper compares aspects of access to two Chicago apprenticeship programs, Plumbers Local 130 and Carpenters District 5, to show the difference between a “recruiting” and “organizing” approach to joint training programs.


Introduction: Understanding Training As Part of a Strategic Organizing Plan


      In December 2001, a spokesperson for the labor–management Chicago Construction Industry Service Corporation (CISCO) said, “The biggest problem facing building trades apprenticeship programs is lack of qualified applicants.” This opinion is widely shared among apprenticeship program leadership. However, as a way to frame the challenge of how to bring people into the union, it creates more difficulties than it solves. It views apprenticeship programs as independent of an overall union organizing strategy. It separates “recruiting” from “organizing.” This paper looks at this same challenge and asks how access into apprenticeship programs stands up when viewed as part of organizing.


      Historically, apprenticeships, not organizing, were the primary channel through which people came into the unionized construction workforce. At one time, the typical apprentice was straight out of high school. But today, the average age of an apprentice is the late 20s; many are in their late 30s. In addition, many tradespeople are “organized” rather than trained; that is, they come into the union not through the apprenticeship program but by working construction or having their employer sign on with the union. The ageing of the typical apprentice, plus the changing linguistic (in Chicago, Hispanic and Eastern European) demographic of the US workforce, from which many “organized” workers come, put stresses on traditional apprenticeship programs. These stresses can be seen as evidence of the need to simplify access and make it more transparent. They have the potential overall effect of pushing apprenticeship programs in the direction of organizing.


      This paper sketches the structure of typical joint apprenticeship programs, gives a brief history of apprenticeship programs in Chicago noting problems related to minority and women’s access, and then compares access to two apprenticeship programs, the Plumbers (L.U. 130, U.A.) and the Carpenters (Chicago and Northeast Illinois District Council) to show how the first operates in the traditional “recruiting” mode, while the second integrates training and organizing.


      The comparison offered here is being developed through my ongoing relationship with Plumbers Local 130 UA and Carpenters District 5. Plumbers represents about 2,300 journeymen, operates a hiring hall, and maintains a traditional apprenticeship program only slightly linked to organizing. Carpenters, which includes several locals and represents about 32,000 journeymen, does not operate a hiring hall and has significantly adapted its training programs to organizing. For the past year, I have been acting as a consultant to a working committee of the Plumbers called the Workforce Development and Training Committee that has been taking a critical look at access to their apprenticeship program. I have also been working with the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues helping to set up the pre-apprenticeship project called Building Bridges; the two major unions involved in that project are the Carpenters and the Electricians.


How Joint Apprenticeship Programs Differ From Non-Union Programs


      Joint apprenticeship programs function defensively, in an environment of competition from nonunion training programs: vocational or school-to-work programs in the public high schools, the Job Corps, community colleges, and private and for-profit job-training entities. When people graduate from a nonunion program, they leave their training context behind and enter the labor market as individuals. By contrast, a joint apprenticeship program produces the skilled workforce and then brings it into the union, represents it, and bargains for it. This creates a very different set of goals for joint programs. But the union does not do this by itself. Training, like safety and technological change, is traditionally a labor–management concern. Labor and management negotiate details of the apprenticeship program between the union and an industry council, including the per-worker-hour contributions to the training fund. Then contractors sign on--become “signatory”--to that master agreement. Labor and management, through a joint apprenticeship committee (J.A.C.) made up of union and industry representatives, oversee the number of apprentices in each class, the location of the program, the application process, even the curriculum.


      Traditionally, apprenticeship programs have been set up to defend what they produce. The benefits of signing on to the master agreement must be preserved for those who have signed on and reserved from those who did not: this means guarding its trade secrets, its curriculum, its training sites, equipment, and tools closely. From the outside, this can look like efforts to exclude (and sometimes appearance is reality). Today, with a generation of journeymen retiring and market share of the unionized workforce dipping below 20 percent, defensive design of access to union membership runs counter to the need to organize.


Chicago’s Joint Apprenticeship Programs


      Since 1937, apprenticeship programs, whether they are joint programs or run solely by employers or employer associations, must be registered with the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training (BAT) of the Department of Labor <>. There are about 1,000 apprenticeship programs registered in Illinois. Of these, about 225 are joint. Of these, 26 are located in the Chicago/Cook County area. The joint apprentice programs in the Chicago area include the crafts (compiled from various sources including the CISCO Guide and personal communications) listed in Table 1.



       Increasingly, apprenticeship programs are linking up with community colleges to add some academic courses to their program to enable apprentices to graduate with an A.S. degree, eliminating the forced choice between a trade and college. This adaptation, while it helps recruiting, does not open up access, however.


       The historical racial and gender exclusivity of the building trades has created a legacy that still has to be overcome. Many of the old-timers in Chicago building trades refer to an era in apprenticeship programs by the name of a west-side Chicago public high school called Washburn Tech. At one time, all the building trades apprenticeship programs were located there. In heavily segregated Chicago, racism was always an issue in the schools. In 1963, the Superintendent of Schools, Benjamin C. Willis, publicly blamed racial discrimination in the trades for the lack of black enrollment at Washburn Tech (Chicago Daily News, July 18, 1963). During the early 1980s, under Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor (1983–1987), a direct conflict developed in which the Chicago Public Schools demanded that all classes at Washburn Tech be taught by Chicago Public Schools teachers; the building trades responded that all classes must be taught by journeymen tradespeople: “Only tradespeople teach tradespeople.” The CPS argued that it paid the teachers (including the tradespeople) and owned the building. The trades responded by moving out, mostly relocating in the largely white northern and western suburbs. This happened during the period following the first racial discrimination complaints brought before the EEOC in Chicago and the 1978 Executive Order (Order #11246, under President Jimmy Carter) that set a timetable for hiring women on federally funded construction projects. During that same period, three Chicago apprenticeship programs--the Electricians, the Pipefitters, and the Plumbers--were brought under consent decrees as settlements to discrimination lawsuits.


       An African American woman who eventually succeeded in an apprenticeship program described her experience with the application process as it was in 1981. Applications for this particular trade were available for only 2 weeks every 2 years. They were given out at three different Park Department sites around the city. On the morning of the first day, there was a line with several hundred people waiting when the door opened. In the application form was the information about what had to accompany the application: birth certificate, high school diploma, doctor’s note describing physical health, and so on. All of this had to be gathered and submitted within the 2–week window. That year, she failed to make the submission deadline. Two years later, there was a recession and the application process was not opened at all. But in 1985 she was close to first in line when the doors opened. This time she knew what was required by way of documentation. She had it all in her car; she got the application, went to her car, put the documentation in an envelope, drove straight to the post office, and saw them postmark the envelope. This time she was accepted and called for a test and an interview. Five months (or, depending on how you tell it, 4 years and 5 months) later, she started taking apprenticeship classes. While these barriers to access were surmountable, they could not be defended on the basis that they sorted good applicants from poor applicants. In addition, since the information about documentation is the kind of information a relative of a journeyman would have in advance, these barriers clearly had an “adverse impact” on groups of people not already connected to the trades. Twenty years later this union has important black and Hispanic member caucuses that watchdog the apprentice experience.


Access to the Plumbers Apprenticeship Program


       Access to the Plumbers, as the program is now, reflects the hope that the applicant will be the traditional high school graduate. To enter the apprenticeship program, applicants must obtain an application (available for a limited time, only once every 2 years), provide a birth certificate, a high school diploma or GED, pass a drug test and a physical exam, and have a valid driver’s license and “reliable transportation.” Applicants must also take and pass an aptitude test, complete a personal experience form (credit would be given for previous construction experience), and obtain a letter of recommendation (from a teacher or minister) or an “intent to hire” letter from a contractor (CISCO:79). Points are given for each of these parts of the application. On the basis of these points, applicants are ranked on a list in order of their score. As each new apprenticeship class opens up (which might happen several times a year), candidates are drawn from this list. This means that a person with a low score may wait 2 years and never be called or may wait nearly 2 years before getting called. “Organized” workers are tested and take classes but do not stream in with the apprentices. No ESL or Spanish-for-English-speakers class is offered.


       The main recommendation from the Workforce Development committee has been that the J.A.C. replace the 2-year list with a rolling application system. “They graduate from high school and they want a job right away,” was the typical comment. “They won’t wait around 2 years.” The committee also recommends increasing the apprentice wages to median of trades (about $14.00/hour) and linking the program to an associate (AS) degree program and ultimately to a B.S. program. While these recommendations would open up the application process considerably, they do not go far towards integrating training and organizing. They do not include outreach to previously not included communities or shaping entry to and exit from the program to accommodate “organized” (more experienced) or non-English speaking workers. They continue to view the target applicant as a recent high school graduate who will spend a lifetime as a plumber.


The Chicago Carpenters: Linking Training and Organizing


       The Carpenters is a union more than ten times larger than the Plumbers, with eight times the number of apprentices. The following table offers a comparison:



       In addition, the Carpenters have disaffiliated with the AFL-CIO. This has led to some jurisdictional conflicts, where there is no overarching structure within which they can be reconciled. However, the Carpenters have allocated money to organizing and have an imperative to organize aggressively, and they have integrated organizing and training to a great degree. While specific circumstances surrounding the Carpenters at this point in time may have worked to push them toward this strategy, the strategy could also be undertaken by a union not in identical circumstances.


       Access to the Carpenters apprenticeship program begins when a person finds a union contractor who will hire or “sponsor” them. Thus an applicant who has not started the apprenticeship program can start work “on permit” and wait until the next set of classes start. The application process includes producing an original Social Security card, having 2 years of high school or a GED, being physically fit, and taking an aptitude test that measures vocabulary, arithmetic ability, and “reasoning power”. Before the apprenticeship starts, if an applicant is already working, he or she takes a short series of mini-classes such as the 10-hour OSHA safety class and CPR. An experienced worker--one with 3 or 4 years of experience--can be sponsored by a contractor to start as a second-, third-, or fourth-year apprentice, at that pay scale. While the union trainers will encourage such a person to start as early in the program as possible, the worker (with the contractor’s approval) may decide to start later. He or she will be encouraged to take “upgrade” classes later on. This is a setup specifically designed for organizing. This also eases a problem found in many trades, where an organized worker is given a journeyman’s card and put to work right away, despite not having the skills of someone who has been through the apprenticeship; this situation breeds resentment against newly organized workers. Organizers report that the strongest recruiting tool they have for these people is the specialized training that the union offers: an experienced worker can quit his or her job with a nonunion contractor, join the union, begin to work for union contractors, and start immediately taking upgrading classes.


       The upgrading classes, also called the Carpenters Skill Advancement Program, include about 160 different courses. Fees are low: many courses are free, others cost $25 to $45 with a few costing $99. Most are offered on Saturdays or weeknights, totaling between 8 and 25 hours. They include courses in construction supervision. Most are offered in English, but some are offered in Spanish. Some training materials are printed in Polish. There is also ESL for non-English speakers.



The following table summarizes the comparison between the two apprenticeship programs:



       When we look at how joint apprenticeship programs “work” we are asking how they accomplish their goals of producing a high-skill, high-wage workforce, numerous enough to meet the labor demands of the industry, efficient enough to compete against a nonunion workforce, and also how they (acting as a function of the union) keep that workforce and its skills in the union so that the union can represent it effectively. The test of the success of an apprenticeship program, therefore, has to be related to how the union as a whole is succeeding in a fiercely competitive environment. Since measures of organizing gains and workforce demand are not part of this study, no projections are being made here that evaluate the outcomes of the different strategies of the Plumbers and the Carpenters. In addition, of course, there are apprenticeship programs that exhibit access processes that range all along the continuum. However, a focus on targeting the traditional high school–age applicant and shaping the application process to that person overlooks the value that the promise of training has for organizing. And conversely, an organizing approach is incompatible with an application process that includes hurdles unrelated to the job, delays, and unavailability of information.




       This paper benefited greatly from the research assistance of Jocelyn Graf, graduate student at University of Illinois, Chicago.




“Contractors Back Union’s Bias Fight.” 1963. Chicago Daily News, July 18. No page number visible.


Construction Industry Service Corporation (CISCO). 2000. Build Your Future With a Career in Construction: A Guide to Apprenticeship Programs in Northeastern Illinois. <>.


Warren, Possley, and Tybor. 1986. “Race-Bias Case Ends Quietly.” Chicago Tribune, February 18, Business, p. 1.





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