November 18, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
“There’s no more career helpers in our business,” says Kuba Brown, head of Local 94 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. To get and keep jobs in today’s buildings, he adds, members need “to stay on top of all the latest innovations in the world.”
That’s why Local 94 has expanded its training program, he explains, sitting in the local’s midtown Manhattan offices with training director Howard Styles. The program has a mandatory three-year core, with classes like basic refrigeration, heating systems and pumps, and electricity for building equipment operations. But it can be extended to five years with electives such as energy conservation, indoor air quality, and fire safety, and courses to obtain a building operation certificate, learning to understand the interdependencies of a facility’s heat, ventilation, air-conditioning, electric, and lighting systems. Another class teaches members how to maintain water-cooling towers. “I don’t think any of our buildings had a problem with Legionnaire’s disease,” Brown notes.“Everybody after the five-year program should have a license,” he says. “We want everybody to obtain the New York City refrigeration operator’s license, sprinklers and standpipes, fire safety, all the certifications to run a building.
Our program is directly related to the industry’s needs,” says Styles. The union works with the Building Owners and Managers Association and various commercial landlords to develop courses. It’s also developed a 15-credit program in environmental control at New York City College of Technology, and members can get reimbursed for 30 credits toward a bachelor’s degree in facilities management. Brown is passionate about wanting members to “elevate,” and the college program is intended to help members move into building-management positions. Years ago, he says, members didn’t need a college degree to do that, but owners now insist on one. The problem that created was that they were “hiring a lot of people who had the accounting and the administrative-type experience, but not the engineering experience.” So Local 94 teaches people “how to operate a building, top to bottom. How to do reports, how to write letters, how to do the interaction between the tenants and the operation of the facility.” A lot of guys come in, they already have the college,” Brown adds. “They get the mechanical experience and they’re there.
The training is also a strong argument for keeping the buildings run by union labor. Insurance companies will look at the certifications workers have, Styles notes, and will see that “they’re highly trained, and they deal in safety.”Another aspect of the program is classes in labor history, in which longtime member Bill Caramico teaches trainees why unions are important. “I’ve realized over the years that it’s more palatable to a fellow when they hear it from someone like them, one of their peers, rather than a union official,” Brown says. “Union officials, people look at as ‘yeah, well, rah-rah union. He brings to the table the truth,” Brown adds—that working people were better off when unions were strong, before the mid-‘70s, before the government and corporate attacks on organized labor and the decline of the middle class that followed. Local 94 is now getting a lot of college graduates, and they’re receptive to this message. This, he says, will be a boon to the labor movement, because they’re smart, and “they know they’re the ones getting screwed. They went to college for four years and have student loans up the ying-yang.”“Educated people—they’re the future of unions,” he concludes.