The Big Debate: Choosing Union vs. Non-Union
Let me start this off by saying this blog (opinion) is not here to start an argument, war, or anything else. This is a question that is asked a lot in the ladies’ groups and pages. It took four of us ladies, ALL different perspectives, and experiences to write this. If you have something cruel to say, please keep on keeping on!
My husband has been Union from the start of his career. The insurance (Dental, Eye, Medical) is better than the insurance I had when I worked for the State. You must build up hours to get the insurance in the beginning, it will not take long so hang in there. A friend who used to be nonunion had this to say about the insurance: “The insurance that is provided by the IBEW was more inclusive than the insurance provided during his time in the non-union apprenticeship. PLUS, all three are provided for free!! (when I say free, I mean the union fights to have that rolled into the overall package that the guys are paid per hour. So, we do not pay anything out of pocket each month.) The cost of prescriptions that we must pay out of pocket is way less than most of my family members must pay with the insurance that they pay way too much for. The union also has an HRA card that has a set dollar amount added for every hour worked. It changes per local but generally runs around $0.50-$1.00. All the money added to this card is contributed by the company, not out of your paycheck. You are able to use this card for anything that is medical, dental, or vision related including Chiropractor visits, contacts, tampons, crown replacements, and so much more.”
The Pension AND Annuity Plan is on a whole other level (Yes, you read that right, there are TWO retirement accounts that are set up for you buy the Union). The percentage that is contributed will vary from each hall you are working in. In most of the non-union companies they only contribute to a 401(K) that requires a match by the employee, and it caps out at 3-6%. It does vary from local to local within the IBEW but most of the time 10-25% of the gross wage is invested into an annuity account for you without having to contribute any of your own money. No match required.
The Apprenticeship is not easy, and it shouldn’t be. Apprentices can be in the program for up to 4 years depending on how fast they progress through the program. When you are an apprentice, you go where your apprenticeship tells you. There is no dragging up or deciding to not work somewhere because you do not want to. There are a few exceptions, but they will doc your overall hours for it. Training to be a Lineman lasts forever and does not stop after the apprenticeship. One of our friends who made the transition from non-union to union said this: “The biggest difference he saw between the two apprenticeships was the quality of training and the safety requirements. He said when he was in the IBEW they had a very regimented schedule of how many hours they wanted worked and how many classroom hours needed to be done and a schedule for the testing. All tests were done in the classroom and were closed book tests. During his non-union apprenticeship he said they were very relaxed about the schedule and the testing was done whenever the apprentice felt like taking it. He said some guys he knew stayed step 2 or 3 for years because they were just not motivated to take the tests to move up. He also said that all the tests were always take home which made it easy for them to be open book. He said they really did not keep track of hours and it was just up to the foreman’s opinion on when you should be bumped up to hot work. Often, if people were buddy-buddy with the foreman, they would get bumped up faster than they should have been and that’s how accidents happened. He said that production was held to a much higher standard than safety. Along that same note he mentioned the hierarchy in the union is a lot better structure than when he was in the non-union apprenticeship. He said the set up currently is 1 General Foreman overseeing 3 (5 man) crews. So, each foreman is only overseeing 4 guys at a time and usually includes at least 1 other Journeyman Lineman helping teach the apprentice(s) on the crew. On the non-Union side he said there was only 1 foreman that was overseeing about 20 apprentices so they crews were made up of 4-5 different step apprentices doing daily tasks on their own and rarely saw the foreman. He referred to it as the blind- leading the blind on most days.”
Safety is such a huge part of the union. The hall that we currently are working out of has a book called the RED Book that is an 89-page book about how many situations should be handled. This is to help protect all parties involved. If an employee does not feel safe doing a job they have the right to stand up to the company without discrimination and does not have to feel scared into doing a task that could injure or kill them on the job.
Once you “Top Out” you become a Journeyman Lineman and Receive your Ticket. This will allow you to work at any hall you choose. Once a Lineman you can drag up or choose to go where the work is you want to do. When you are working out of your Local you are on book one. Any other local and you are behind the other local workers looking for work. So, you have the second pick of jobs. Pay rates are different out of each hall as well as other rules and regulations. When you finish the IBEW Union apprenticeship you are given a yellow ticket. This is often referred to as the golden ticket because it is accepted at not only every other local, no questions asked but it is nationally accepted at utilities, co-ops, and municipals also. You may still have you test into the company, but they will not make you go through their specific apprentice from the beginning.
That brings me to the next point. Contractors can travel a lot! Jobs will come and go. Sometimes they will be in one spot for a year or more. Other times it will be a month here and there. It really depends on the weather, storm work, fires, and where the contracts are for repairing or replacing the infrastructure. Most Linemen live out of campers while working on the road. It is way cheaper, and you can have a place to call home on the road. A lot of families choose to travel with their Linemen as well. It is called “tramping”. Want to work in California in the mix of grape vines? Want to work in Key West over the water? Wherever there are jobs available you can go! This does not just stop in the states. The IBEW stands for International Brother Hood of Electrical Workers and you can work out of any hall in the world pretty much. We have had friends who went over to Canada, Australia, etc., to work and had the best time exploring the different cultures while being paid.
Having a union steward when things go kind of sideways is especially important. If the company does not pay you the amount owed or in a timely fashion, you get fired without good reason, or something just seems fishy, there is someone to help fight the company on your behalf. The Union fights to make sure that the contracts are inclusive to both parties and that the over all package that these men and women get paid is a fair amount. He said that he does not know any union guys who get paid more than the union contracted agreements. Also, because of the contracts set in place we get a raise every single year. And it’s usually a fairly good bump. This year in June, the local we are currently working out of will be giving us a $1.16 hourly raise and they will be increasing the NEAP contribution by $1.00/ hour as well.
Non-Union With Option of Union
I am coming into this, looking from both sides. My goal in writing this is to bring unity to the union/non-union debate. I don’t think anyone is better because they are union or non-union because all of our husbands are doing an extremely dangerous job and should have each other’s back no matter what. I feel like “My Brother’s Keeper” is now a cliché and it’s about whose husband is better than the other. I really think we should support one another no matter what and stop the discrimination of who’s better because we are all in the same boat.
My husband started in the industry with a large contracting company with no experience and worked his way up to a Class A lineman in 5 years. Now, I do want to say, I think a lot of this depends on the lineman, their work ethics and their foreman/crew. My husband at one time was offered a Foreman position but turned it down because he felt he wasn’t ready and I know a lot of men would jump to this even if they weren’t ready. Safety has always been his first priority and he always wants to learn more.
Insurance through a contractor is a little more expensive than insurance from unions but I have seen so many women with union husbands say their insurance doesn’t cover things when ours does, which probably equals out in the long run. Our insurance when he was with a contracting company came out weekly but the deductible was low.
The pay was good. He received a review every 6 months and usually ended up with a $1 raise each time. Depending on where you work with a contractor, there is a top out point on pay. You can only make so much depending on the contract with the power company the contractor is working for and their budget.
Yes, he traveled for work, but it usually was by choice except for storm. He followed the work he wanted to do (transmission, distribution or underground). That is another benefit of working with a contractor because you get to learn all the trades of the job and not be set to one trade. Most of the time, he only worked an hour to an hour and half away from home at most, so he was home every night. Occasionally, he would have to go on storm which wasn’t a bad thing because storm money for any wife is awesome money to help give you that “umph” and little bit extra in the bank. The contracting company always made sure my husband had a room when they went on storm also. He always received per diem which was nice too and it helped cover that extra traveling expense for gas when working an hour away. The contracting company never did my husband wrong. It was a great starting point for him without having to go to lineman school and he was able to work up at his pace without judgement or debt from going to school.
His dream job had always been to work for our local co-op electric company. Working for a contractor was just a foot in the door for him. We spoke to one of the lineman one day who worked for the local co-op and had been there for 28 years and has a $2.8 million dollar pension which was impressive to us. We knew we had to better prepare for retirement because the contractor did not offer a pension and only offered a 401k. My husband went through a vigorous 3 step interview process when he applied, and with the tools he learned through the contracting company, he was able to get the job. He did so well on his testing that he almost went in as a journeyman which goes to show that what he learned through the contracting company wasn’t that bad.
This job is union by choice. Meaning he could join the union if he chose to do so but opted out. They offer better benefits than a contractor in my opinion. With the cop-op, he is fully invested in his retirement after 5 years and he has a 401k that is matched up to 5%. Our insurance has dropped by half and he had 6 weeks of training which he absolutely loved. When I say training, I do not mean climbing or the normal work. It taught him the history of linework, how electricity works, how it began….the inside depth of linework and not how to just do something. Even though he is not union with the company, he gets the union benefits. We felt that paying dues for the union just to be able to vote on the contract is not beneficial for us.
Benefits of the co-op: Anything over his scheduled 8 hours a day is overtime. With the contracting company, he only received overtime after 40 hours and usually, they cut overtime because they were on a budget for the power company they were working for. Instead of storm money, we get on-call money. One week out of the month he is on call. This is a pro and con to be honest. He is married to his truck when on call and can be called out at any time no matter what we are doing. He also get a spiff for being on call daily plus, he gets paid for “sleep time” if he works into the night, and he gets a raise every 6 months. Even though he opted out of union, he can still get his Journeyman card. All he has to do it test out at the co-op.
Like I said in the beginning, everything has its pros and cons. I think this ongoing battle of union and non-union is truly a sad thing. Everyone will have different opinions, but our husbands are truly all in the same line of work and should support one another no matter what. I don’t think we as linewives have the right to bash others because of their decisions on where they work, who they work for, union or non-union. That is not what we are about. We are supposed to be one. Some wives have never experienced the non-union side of the trade which is giving a biased opinion and that is not fair. All of these men put their life on the line every single day either way. When someone is injured or worse, does it make it less sad because they are union or not? No…..it doesn’t. Let’s all stop and unite as one as we should and stop discriminating against one another because of our husband’s being union or not. It’s just not right for us to judge. We do not judge one another based on race, based on if one union hall is better than the other, religion, which contracting company the other husband’s work for, so why this??? Let it be because sometimes what one husband likes or dislikes may not be what the other likes.
My husband started Line Work in 2004. Over the years he has worked for several different contractors. He has done Transmission, Distribution and Underground. When he first started out, he literally started from the bottom. In the beginning it was common to hop from company to company, following the money and the work. He has worked close to home and far away, going months without seeing each other due to his job. He has worked in the heat and he has worked in the freezing cold (He prefers the heat by the way LOL). He has currently been with the same contractor for the past five and a half years. He has had on the job training as well as tons of classes for various things. They are extremely serious about the safety of their employees despite what most people seem to think. They have been so good to my husband and our family. They understand that even though the job can pull you away from your normal life in the drop of a hat, they also make sure that you can be there for your children’s school awards programs and Father’s Day breakfast. This company has provided our family with lifelong friends that completely understand what it is like to live this lifestyle. Unfortunately, no matter the status, whether it is Union or Non-Union, this job comes with tragedies. When that happens, my husband’s company comes together to show their utmost support. Now here we are, present day and he has now worked from the bottom as a grunt to a Foreman. He has put his blood, sweat and tears into his job. The pay and per diem are extremely competitive within his company. They give paid vacation time as well as health insurance, life insurance and a 401K. The health insurance is pretty decent for a family and is actually cheaper monthly than through my government job. We have yet to run into a situation where they would not cover something that is needed. The prescription coverage is pretty great as well. They have evaluations every 6 months that also come with decent pay raise. The equipment is regularly maintained, and they always have what they need to get the job done. At the end of the day, the goal for anyone working in this field, regardless of union or non-union, is to come home safely and be your brother’s keeper. This job is truly a way of life that only those who have lived it would understand.
Keep in mind this blog took FOUR ladies from FOUR different situations. It is up to you and your family to decide what is best for you. What fits for one family will not fit for another family and there is absolutely no reason to look down upon them for their decisions. Calling names and being cruel has never made anyone change their minds. You do not know what people are walking through so please choose to be kind. In the end no matter if you choose Union or Non-Union, these Lineman are putting it all on the line.
*If you feel there should be more to add to this, please comment or message us and we will review your submission to be added.
Blog put together by: SS, SN, Jennifer, & Jenny