Joining union proves rewarding for carpenter

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Exploring the
Carpenters Union

This is the fifth installment of an advertorial series on the United Brotherhood of Carpenters running this week in the Post-Tribune. The series’ last installment on Saturday will feature important contributions to the area made by Carpenters Union Local 599 in Hammond.

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Mark Billings feels like he’s wasted 10 years of his life.

That’s the number of years the Chesterton resident and now an active member of Carpenters Local 1005 in Hobart spent as a nonunion carpenter, working, he said, for wages but nothing else.

“There was no retirement plan, no annuity, no pension, no vacation pay, no insurance,” Billings said.

“Being a union carpenter is a career. Being a nonunion carpenter is just a job. I didn’t realize how much you could get by being in the union,” said Billings, who added this is why he chooses to pay his union dues, whatever it costs.

Billings said he started in the carpentry field by framing houses and did mostly new construction work during his tenure as a nonunion carpenter. Then came the housing crash and he was laid off for two years.

Two years ago, Billings, now 30, joined the union and was slotted in as a second-year apprentice. Today, he is almost a fourth-year apprentice and has worked nonstop.

The difference in his quality of life, he said, was huge.

“Now I am providing for my family. My wife and I recently had a baby; he’s six months old. I can’t imagine having a baby without insurance these days,” Billings said.

Billings’ first child, a 13-year-old daughter, was born when he didn’t have insurance.

Safety first

But while factors like better pay, a secure retirement and health insurance are nice perks, Billings said safety on the job is the main difference between being union and nonunion.

He said union carpenters need to wear gloves, hard hats and safety glasses at all times on the job. Every day they go over their daily tasks and risks, discussing how to prevent an accident from happening while they’re doing their jobs. Every Wednesday they need to attend a safety meeting.

“I’m working on a big job for NIPSCO and there have only been small accidents. I’m talking like a splinter in a finger,” Billings said.

He said since joining the union, he thinks twice about doing some of the things he used to do on nonunion jobs.

“Productivity is a must. To be productive, you need to be safe,” Billings said.

Beneficial classes

Another perk in joining the union, according to Billings, are the upgrade training classes offered to members that allow them to be up-to-date on what’s new in the market. The classes are voluntary and free to members, who can take them at their leisure.

The classes take place after work hours at the Hobart union facility and take about 2 ½ to three hours a night over a two-week period. While it makes for a long day, Billings takes full advantage of them.

Billings said he now has certifications in welding and scaffolding as a result of the classes. While neither will result in more pay, Billings said they do make him more appealing to a contractor, which in turn could help get him more jobs in what he described as a highly competitive field.

But members aren’t the only ones who benefit from the carpenters union, according to Billings. He said workers in other trades and the companies they work for also benefit from having highly skilled and trained carpenters on a job.

For instance, he said the carpenters working on Northern Indiana Public Service Co.’s job at R. M. Schahfer generating station in Wheatfield, where new chimney stacks are being built to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are using special equipment that result in bolts being perfectly aligned so ironworkers can come in and set their equipment on the bolts without having to make any adjustments.

“You wouldn’t see this on a nonunion job,” Billings said, attributing the precise work to the union’s apprenticeship program.

As for Billings himself, as he compares his nonunion work with his union career, he said his quality of life has greatly improved.

“I now have something to be able to retire on,” Billings said.

“I’m loving it.”

Provided by Custom Media Solutions for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters