Aguilar: Say the Secret Word, Governor!

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

By Leonard Aguilar, LU142 and Secretary-Treasurer, Texas AFL-CIO

On the original version of the game show “You Bet Your Life,” if while chatting with Groucho Marx a contestant said “the secret word” revealed to the TV audience before the show, a duck on a string dropped from the rafters, theme music blared, and a cash bonus was paid.

In “Apprenticeships empower employers to fill critical skills gaps” (Rio Grande Guardian, Sept. 20), Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t say “the secret word.” In fact, while singing the praises of registered apprenticeships, Abbott had to twist himself into a pretzel to avoid putting the words “labor” and “union” in the same sentence. When the Texas AFL-CIO talks about job training, the duck drops when you say “registered union apprenticeships.”

The Governor’s political biases skip the real story. Labor unions have historically led the way in building systems of paid training in crafts that are in demand. Union apprenticeships in the Building Trades and beyond have set an unsurpassed standard of quality and safety. Combined with the virtues of union contracts, Texas-based unions have launched tens of thousands of apprentices into solid, middle-class livelihoods that benefit all of Texas.

You even earn while you learn from masters in a craft. The companies that work with unions on registered apprenticeships know that paying apprentices to build their skills to the highest level possible is good business.

To build expertise, however, a union apprentice typically takes years, not just weeks or months. Some “registered apprenticeships”  — not the union ones — run on the cheap, seek to minimize training time, and place workers in jobs that pay less and offer fewer benefits. When that happens, safety may be compromised.

In other words, there are different kinds of “registered” apprenticeships, with unions bearing a clear mark of excellence.

I should know. I’m a Plumber by trade. The union that got me started — United Association of Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 142 in San Antonio — has a long history of training plumbers for successful careers. As an apprentice, I skipped no steps in learning every essential. Plumbers do much more than fix water flow in homes and buildings; for example, we install sensitive hospital equipment that can make the difference between life and death. I was confident I could ply my trade alongside anyone (and I knew there was much more to learn as my career proceeded). My union prepared me for a family-supporting career that eventually led to the job I hold now at the state labor federation. 

Why do we have “registered” apprenticeships? In the early 20th Century, employers who trained workers wanted a piece of them in another way, requiring them to sign substantial performance bonds that would be forfeited if they left for greener pastures. Unions busted that indentured service model by leading the way to the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937, which protected the safety of customers and the general public through certification that “registered” programs meet basic standards. Sadly, in 2022, some companies that have never even had an apprenticeship model — think fast food, for example — are trying to return to the bad old days by charging workers thousands of dollars for “training” costs if they leave. The fight continues to ensure high standards of job training with real opportunity.

Long ago, unions progressed from a guild model designed to limit membership to a more inclusive model that welcomes and encourages everyone with an interest to consider apprenticeships. Women and persons of color have dramatically expanded the diversity of the building trades. 

In Texas and beyond, we have advanced multi-week apprenticeship readiness programs that introduce workers to different trades and connect them to solid employers in fields where they show the most aptitude. (The union programs also pay participants to learn, not the other way around.)

Registered union apprenticeships are not easy. They take hard work and long-term focus. But they offer the richest rewards. The “secret word” is union.