A Milwaukee Father and Son on How Union Work Changed Their Lives

“The word union has been so taboo for so long, and he’s [Biden] on national TV saying the word ‘union,’” Levar Wilson Sr. said. “America was built on union labor, union work. Every union member benefits from the fact that he uses that specific word.” (Graphic by Francesca Daly)

By Isabel Soisson

October 4, 2023

Levar Wilson Sr. knows what a union can provide.

The 45-year-old Milwaukee resident has spent the past 22 years working in the skilled trades, working his way up from being a paid apprentice to a union glazier installing aluminum, glass, mirrors, doors, and handrails in buildings—“basically anything that had to do with glass on a commercial level.”

Working in the trades changed his life, Wilson Sr. said.

It taught him solidarity and helped him understand what it’s like to be a part of a brotherhood. He says he and his colleagues accept each other, flaws and all. They share advice, rely on each other, and have come to know each other’s families.

Most importantly, being a union worker in the trades is not just a job.

“It’s a career,” Wilson Sr. said.

He currently serves as a field representative and organizer with his union, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades-District Council 7 (IUPAT-DC7).

When he goes out and talks to non-union workers and tries to convince them to join his union, his goal is to “give everybody a fighting wage, a living wage,” as well as retirement and health care benefits.

That’s what union work has given him; the ability to provide for his family, guaranteeing them a certain level of security that he didn’t have growing up.

Wilson Sr. had what he described as a “rough” childhood. Growing up in Milwaukee in the 1980s, his family relied on government benefits to get by and when necessary, he stayed with family members who all had a hand in raising him.

“It wasn’t the prettiest, but my mom made it work,” he said.

Wilson Sr.’s union career, however, meant that his kids would grow up with more stability and comfort.

“I never wanted for anything,” Levar Wilson Jr. said of his childhood.

That’s why Wilson Sr. believes unions are crucial—especially for Black workers.

“The Black struggle has always been tied to labor,” he said. “We’ve always been in this fight; this is the fight we’ve always known. We started fighting it, and we continue to.”

It’s also why he’s thrilled that the White House is home to a pro-union president.

“The word union has been so taboo for so long, and he’s [Biden] on national TV saying the word ‘union,’” Wilson Sr. said. “America was built on union labor, union work. Every union member benefits from the fact that he uses that specific word.”

Wilson Sr. doesn’t just appreciate Biden’s pro-union rhetoric, but “loves” his pro-union policies, such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

Those laws are expected to create millions of jobs over the next decade—many of them union jobs—and invest in a whole new generation of apprentices and workers in the skilled trades, including his own son.

Wilson Jr. initially enrolled in university, attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for about three years. But having seen how the trades changed his father’s life, he realized he wanted the same for himself and decided the trades were a better fit than higher education.

At 23, Wilson Jr. began his apprenticeship with IUPAT-DC7 at age 23.

Now 26, he’s in the third year of his apprenticeship, working to become a union glazier, just like his dad. He says that every day when he shows up for work, he meets up with his coworkers, establishes the tasks that need to be completed that day, and gets to work.

Recently, Wilson Jr. worked on the Milwaukee Tool expansion, installing glass walls in offices as part of a $200 million project.

Both father and son agree on the positives of working in the trades: the money is great, which reduces stress and allows for better mental health.

The stability of his finances gives Wilson Jr. “something to fall back on,” he said.

His son’s entry into the industry underscores another one of Wilson Sr.’s goals: to recruit more people of color into union trades work.

He frequently visits inner-city Milwaukee schools, and makes an effort to teach young people of color about careers in the trades. After all, he himself was the only Black person in the majority of his work spaces for years.

Wilson Sr. acknowledged that he’s faced adversity in his career due to his race, but said the pay and benefits of his job outweighed the downsides for him.

“I put up with a lot, but it didn’t change the fact that I had four kids at home to feed,” he said. “Pride doesn’t mean anything when it comes to your family.”

When asked if he has any advice for people of color who are interested in going into trades work, he said to “just do it.”

The opportunities are going to be there.

Biden’s infrastructure law is expected to create millions of jobs over the next decade, including potentially hundreds of thousands of union jobs. Most of the construction projects funded or supported through the law will also be subject to prevailing wage standards, meaning construction workers on these projects must be paid at least the average wage paid to similarly employed workers in their area.

Prevailing wages prevent non-union contractors from undermining higher standards of pay and benefits that workers negotiate through collective bargaining. Prevailing wages also boost and standardize rates of pay for all workers, both union and non-union.

The IRA, which is expected to create up to nine million jobs over the next decade, also offers generous tax credits to companies who meet prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements. The law’s tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects are five times higher if the employers pay prevailing wage rates and use registered apprentices and journeymen workers (those who’ve completed an apprenticeship).

These incentives aim to boost industry-funded apprenticeship programs and ensure a steady pipeline of opportunities for new workers to enter the field. These programs, like the ones the Wilsons have participated in, are free to participate in, pay wages, and provide benefits.

Wilson Sr. believes these efforts will succeed in creating further opportunities for union work and incentivize more people to join the trades, ultimately leading to a better life.

“Everyone wants that American Dream, that financial freedom,” he continued. “A union job gives you that.”

Author

  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.

CATEGORIES: LABOR | POLITICS

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