Jonathan Freeman has worked a variety of fast-food and warehousing jobs over the past decade to pay his bills, but as a husband and new father he is eager for a better job with more pay and benefits.
So at age 30, Freeman is going back to school. Unlike most college students, however, the Cleveland, Tenn., native is still working full time and he isn't having to pay for his training.
Freeman is one of nearly 300 electrical workers enrolled in the electrician apprenticeship program through Local 175 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Chattanooga's biggest trade union. For the next five years, Freeman will work for area electrical contractors during the day and go the school two nights a week.
"I wanted something that would build a career for me and help support my family," Freeman said while participating in an early wiring class. "It's a lot of work, but a lot of fun too and I think an investment in my future."
As a journeyman electrician, Freeman will be paid $28.52 an hour, more than twice what he now earns as an apprentice.
Union leaders insist the apprenticeship program and training facility jointly funded by the union and area electrical contractors is key to the success of their members and their union.
While organized labor is losing members overall in Tennessee, IBEW Local 175 is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month with a record high of nearly 3,100 members.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 4.6 percent of private-sector workers in Tennessee and only 3.9 percent of private-sector workers in Georgia belonged to a labor union last year. The union share of the workforce was the lowest in both states since the government began keeping such statistics.
But the IBEW local in Chattanooga has bucked the downturn since its start in 1912 through a combination of training programs, the growth of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the consolidation with other IBEW locals.
Roots in Training
"First and foremost, the key to our success is our training," said Dwight Wilhoit, 38-year unionized electrician who has been Local 175 president since 1995 -- the longest serving in the local's history. "I really believe the instruction and hands-on experience we provide our members is second to none."
The national IBEW was started in 1891, in part, in response to the fatal accidents that surrounded the 1889 historic Exposition of Light in St. Louis. With little attention to safety or training, half of the electrical linemen who wired parts of the exhibit were killed.
"From the start, we were created to help bring better training and working conditions to make sure the industry is safe," said Howell "Barry" Key, business manager for the local electricians union.
Local 175 was started in Chattanooga in 1912 after other early locals fell away. Local 175 picked up extra members in 1991 when Local 846, which represented electrical linemen, merged with Local 175.
With changing technology and the advent of both electrical and fiber optic communication wires, such training is as important as ever, Key said.
The IBEW and other unions also have benefited by the presence of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created in 1933 to help electrify the then-impoverished Appalachia region along the Tennessee River.
From hydroelectric dams, to coal-fired power plants to nuclear power, the power plants in TVA's seven-state region have been built and operated with the help of electricians represented by the IBEW. Unionized linemen have built and maintained the largest transmission grid of any utility in the country for TVA.
As the power headquarters for TVA, Chattanooga has emerged as the biggest employment center for the federal utility and IBEW Local 175 has been one of its biggest unions.
Under federal work rules adopted in 1931 under the Davis-Bacon Act, government agencies must pay prevailing wages to their own workers and those of their contractors on public works projects. That has helped to keep nearly all of the electrical work done for TVA, its distributors and many major customers under union contracts with IBEW.
Colton Long, a 21-year-old from Whitwell, said after working for other nonunion companies, he was eager to join the IBEW.
"I love being able to work with my hands and help to build and wire buildings," he said during a recent session at the Joint Apprenticeship Training facility on Volunteer Avenue in Chattanooga. "The union makes sure you are trained, it gives you a voice and it makes sure you get better benefits than what other employers provide."
Enlarging "the Family"
Duane Woodall, a 34-year union member who teaches in the apprenticeship program, as well as in high school, says the IBEW "is like a big family" in which members take care of each other.
For most of its history, that "family" has been close knit and not always open to different races and genders. Local 175 didn't have any African-American members until the 1970s and still is overwhelmingly populated by men.
But Kenny Smith, director of training, said the union is trying to diversify its membership.
"We encourage everyone who is interested to apply to our program, but it is competitive to get in," he said.
Katie Balazs, 29, is completing her apprentice program this year and for most of the past five years has been one of the only women in her class. It's taken her five years of schooling and more than 8,000 hours of on-the-job work to attain the journeyman status. But even as the only woman in some of her classes, Balazs said the long hours have been worth it.
"In this program, you're going to school while you work; you learn your trade, and you make money," she said. "It's long hours, but it's a good investment to get a good career."