Unions in the Age of COVID-19

January 2021//News

Many Veterans leave the military with skills and interests which align them with industries such as construction, transportation, logistics, and labor, which all have strong union presences in the American workforce. Employment Case Manager Ryan Schaefer, a Veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps with a background which includes carpentry, farming, and now social services, has great insight into the opportunities and challenges labor unions create for MACV Veterans.

“I’ve helped guys get up to date or keep up to date if they’re behind on their union due,” explains Schaefer, “That’s the number one that we use.” Other common interactions MACV has with local unions include initial payment of dues for new members, which are commonly higher than the maintenance payment existing members pay.

Why pay dues at all? Local labor unions often hold the cards for lucrative, stable jobs in skilled labor industries like plumbing and electrician work. Dues paid by union laborers give them access to these opportunities, bargaining rights, and protections from a volatile job market.

At least in theory. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on even the most stable unions, sidelining industries such as electricians and construction workers for months or even years. “[A Minnesota] electrician’s union didn’t even accept any applications in 2020, so now there’s a backlog of two years’ worth of member applications which need processing,” reports Schaefer. These kinds of administrative problems have very real impacts on the financial stability of Veterans served by MACV.

Barriers like reliable transportation across a physically large state with a wide range of work sites also pose challenges to Veterans who may not have a driver’s license or cannot afford a car. Paying upfront for expenses like a hotel room or other temporary living arrangement, then waiting for union reimbursement, often writes MACV Veterans off the list for high-paying jobs outside their immediate community.

Schaefer also notes that Veterans themselves often play a significant role in whether they succeed in the union environment. Soft skills MACV emphasizes in its Employment Services like monitoring job boards, using computers to apply for jobs, building interpersonal relationships in the work environment, and becoming familiar with conduct standards all play roles in the successful union member’s life. “We might have a guy who gets their first job after we pay their union dues, but then never finds another one because he doesn’t look,” he explains.

These simple oversights may discourage an inexperienced worker and have long-lasting impacts on their employability and ability to build experience on the job. Factors such as age, criminal background, professional qualifications, and reputation also contribute to a Veteran’s success in the union-tied trades.

At the end of the day, choosing to join or leave the U.S. military is a career choice. Bridging the divide between the military and civilian work environment is the most concrete divide Veterans experience upon leaving active duty. A shared background in the military and civilian worlds is an especially critical factor for working with the Veteran population struggling to succeed in their work life. MACV considers this team a critical element for the long-term stabilization of homeless and at-risk Veterans. Thanks for all the hard work, guys!

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