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June 10, 2024 | Training

Carpenters Local Union 291 Is Working To Ensure Those In The Trade Are Well Trained

Via Saratoga Business Journal | By Susan Elise Campbell

Carpenters Local Union 291 is not rapidly growing but has the potential to, according to its president, James Margiotta. Skilled union carpenters can make a six-figure income with benefits, and no vocational school education or even a high school diploma is required, he said.

“Membership has been at the status quo the better part of the past 20 years,” said Margiotta, who has been a member of Local 291 for 25 years and in several of its elected positions for 11 years.

There are 1,600 members currently in 14 counties encompassing the Capital Region and North Country of New York. There are surges in membership at times but Margiotta said the union is “staying afloat because of a two-fold issue.”

“One reason growth isn’t as good as it could be is the ability to find skilled people that could command the wages that we negotiate for members,” he said.

“There has also been an issue of finding younger people interested in starting this kind of career in the carpentry trade,” said Margiotta.

Blue collar work was not something that schools or parents were pushing young people toward for a period of time, he said. College was. “But there has been a change in that mind-set in the last five years or so, and it’s gaining momentum,” Margiotta said.

In the 140 years Carpenters Local 291 has existed, members have seen other changes and not just in attitudes about the trade. At one time the union required members to complete high school, but that is no longer the case, according to Margiotta. The union provides all training and education.

“There are big projects coming up throughout New York spurred through workforce development programs,” he said. “The schools are starting to say, this is a good option for you to get involved in the trades.”

Margiotta said society in general has not promoted carpentry as a job because “it’s not glamorous.”

“Years ago there were advertisements on TV about how unions were good and good for you, but this went away,” he said. “And there are no labor studies or labor history courses in high school now.”

Margiotta grew up in a union household and “knew the value” of unions, whereas the parents of younger people today are not as versed in what unions can offer, he said.

“It’s not as saturated as it used to be, when pensions were a thing,” he said. “Pensions barely exist now unless you work for the state or you are in a union.”

Margiotta commented that a 401(k) plan is not the same as a pension plan. A corporate employer may match some part of a worker’s 401(k) contribution but distributions from the plan are not guaranteed for life, as a pension plan in.

“The value of those certain things may be something the family household doesn’t know enough about to value them,” he said.

“Growing up my father said, you always have to have a pension,” said Margiotta. “If you are not going to have your own successful business, then you need to have a pension because no one else is going to care more about you than you or the organization you work with.”

“Especially since COVID have people begun to understand they can make a viable living with benefits above and beyond the weekly paycheck,” he said. They are realizing that a career in the carpentry trade can be lucrative, especially when health and future retirement income are added in, he said.

Margiotta said the union has changed the way apprentices are compensated. It has increased the percentage of a journeyman’s wage paid to apprentices so that the starting wage is more competitive.

As a result, Carpenters Local 291 is currently doing well with recruitment among young people. But Margiotta said the issue with growth now is that there is “a lot of competition in the open shop side of things.”

“There are some projects that should be prevailing wage, but are not,” he said. “There are checks and balances involved on a public project, but you do see tax fraud on some of the private projects” where union workers are not hired.

When a construction company, or any kind of company, pays in cash under the table, they are driving down their tax liability and therefore the worker’s wage. Margiotta said the state “does not put a lot of money or effort into policing that sort of a thing, which is a shame, because everybody suffers for it and it becomes difficult for reputable contractors to compete.”

The construction firms with which Carpenters Local 291 has collective bargaining agreements to work only with them and are “bound to the rules.” This means a safer job site, an attractive wage, and projects that can continue all year over several years, he said.

“We represent our members,” he said.

Any construction job entails some risk. Carpenters work at heights and in confined, loud or dirty environments. Margiotta said every apprentice and every member is safety trained and receives “the best training the industry has to offer.”

At any given time, 10 percent of membership are in the apprentice program. Margiotta said there are on average 140 or 150 apprentices coming through the training school in Albany and that Local 291 has “the ability to secure any younger people who want to come to us.”

New ones are entering the field organically and through social media, Margiotta said. He also said there has been great success reaching out to underprivileged or underserved parts of the communities they represent.

Carpenters Local 291 is part of North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents over 30,000 fellow members in New York and New England. The website says, “With our extensive training, productivity, political activism and organizing efforts our mission is to achieve an ever-increasing market share in our industry.” Furthermore, it promotes “a safe and sustainable standard of living for all.”