Labor: Trading Up for Trades | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Labor: Trading Up for Trades


Beth Kowalewski started working at Chatham College five years ago as a housekeeper, but the classes available through her union have made her a tradeswoman.



Thanks to a recent agreement, about 400 other cleaners, security guards and groundskeepers at Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne and Point Park universities can take advantage of the same training program.


As a housekeeper, Kowalewski was a member of the Service Employees International Union Local 3, which represents about 2,000 city janitors, especially at large institutions and Downtown. Thanks to a partnership with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 95, SEIU members who work at Chatham were already able to enroll in the variety of trade skills and safety classes offered by the engineers' union at their Greenfield hall.


Kowalewski's new position as a painter has given the 41-year-old a big jump in pay. "I'm the only female in the trades" at Chatham, she says, among about a dozen tradespeople there.


"The fastest growing industry is the service industry and [it] pays $6 an hour," says SEIU Local 3's Pittsburgh Director Gabe Morgan. "Is the biggest part of our economy going to be poverty jobs?" By contrast, union cleaning jobs are full time, and pay between $9-12 per hour (meaning annual wages around $20,000).


"By making it so our people can have a job, instead of four or five jobs, they actually have time for adult education," Morgan says. "A blue-collar worker can go from part time to full time to a career."


The best thing about these classes is that they're free to members, because the universities have agreed to pitch in about a nickel for each janitor-hour worked. After completing program courses on physical and chemical safety on the job, union members are eligible to study electrical systems, refrigeration, boiler maintenance, even computer skills and human relations.


Some cleaners may become building engineers, but the classes would also qualify so-called "unskilled" janitors for a variety of better-paying skilled-labor jobs.


Even if they don't become, say, master electricians, employees with good mechanical skills (even just to recognize emerging equipment problems) save companies money, says IUOE Local 95 business manager Bill Cagney.


"We want to add value for employers so they can continue to make these good jobs," says Morgan. Newly trained union cleaners in New York City, he adds, have helped save buildings' insurance premiums by forming emergency preparedness teams.


Kowalewski says she wouldn't have been able to enroll in similar classes at a community college. Chatham "was gracious enough to pitch in," she says. "Financially, that's the only thing I'm able to do."


"We're fortunate to have a progressive group of customers," says Lou DiNardo, vice-president of Central Property Services, the contractor that cleans CMU and Point Park. Because of benefits like education and health care, "These unionized housekeeper positions are becoming more desirable," he adds, "and we can see that in our applicant pool."


Ironically, the classes Kowalewski took had nothing to do with painting. She took a basic plumbing class at the IUOE hall and various safety seminars -- even a class on valves. But those classes helped her change fields anyway, because "it showed [prospective employers] I'm willing to learn new things; I'm not just settled in one aspect of the job, I want to teach myself to do things."

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