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Mike Briley: The Virginia Story of a Labor Education Leader

By Mike Signer | April 19, 2011 | No Comments

Mike Briley’s dad passed away when he was 18.  Mike had been planning on heading to college, but his mom was now on her own, and he needed to take care of her.  So he changed his plans, decided to follow in his dad’s footsteps, and become an apprentice pipefitter.  But it wasn’t easy; he had to wait over two years first, before there was an available space at the local apprentice school in Newport News.  Then, Mike spent years studying with journeymen and vocational tech instructors before he could become a journeyman himself.

After several years, Mike was credentialed as a union pipefitter.  He went on to build a stable life for his family.  Recently, his son looked at his dad and grandfather’s footsteps and decided he’d follow in them as well.

After years as a journeyman, Mike moved into union management.  He currently is the Business Manager for the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 540 in Newport News, which trains about a dozen apprentices a year to become state-licensed welders.  NDP recently visited the apprentice school Mike helps run to gather some facts about these important but little-understood teaching institutions.

On a recent Friday evening, we sat with Mike in the spare but homey office of the Local No. 540, which sits in a low-slung building on Warwick Blvd.  Wide meeting rooms spread in the building’s cheerful, ramshackle front area.  Out back is a warren of welder’s practice spaces, fronted by thick green curtains to protect onlookers from sparks, training pipes, and assorted other heavy-duty training equipment. A practical, genial man, Mike described his life story and his approach to training apprentices, before taking us on a tour of the facility.

As Mike observed, his family’s three-generation story is not just a story about the Brileys.  It’s the story of thousands of working families in Virginia.  With the recent attacks on working families in Wisconsin and other places, unions have been under fire.  Caricatures and attacks have been flying around like debris in a tornado.  But the attacks have also been backfiring, with polls showing more Americans sympathizing  with the teachers and firemen under attack.  While the tide seems to be turning in favor of public employees, there’s still a lot of work to do on attitudes toward the “building trades” — such as the trained welders who help build our buildings, bridges, and industrial machinery.  And progress will occur if more folks know more about what unions actually do to train workers.

Here are some basics about the Plumbers and Steamfitters apprentice college:  it takes five years to earn your certificate through the apprentice school, compared with four years for a state-licensed program.  The college uses their own teachers and vocational tech (also known as “votech”) teachers to teach plumbers, pipefitters, welders, gasfitters, and HVAC workers.

They sit down with large and small corporations such as Carrier, Johnson Controls, Honeywell, and Warwick Plumbing and Heating to place their apprentices.  They include intensive safety classes, such as rigging and signaling, earning their apprentices an Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) certification.  And their laborers, once graduated and employed as journeymen, earn not only good salaries ($40 an hour is common) but reliable benefits for their families as well.

“Not everyone’s going to make it through college,” Mike says.  “What happens to those who don’t?  They don’t all need to flip burgers.”  He cites himself as an example.  When his father died, Mike wanted to go into the apprentice school immediately.  But there wasn’t yet room.  So he worked at Anheuser Busch as a laborer for two and a half years, until his number came up.  After he got in, he says, “I just wanted to see how things tick.  I’m just like any other second generation person—I just wanted to see how unions were formed.”

Mike is happy with the progress of the apprentice college, but thinks Virginia could use more enforcement of union regulations and workplaces.  He’s also frustrated that too few people seem to understand the efforts unions take to ensure quality workmanship.

To that end, Mike took us on the tour of the college.  It was early Friday evening, not a good time for students to come by.  We walked through a room where heavy green aprons guarded practice welding stations.  All were empty except for one, where a heavily tattooed student was there, in a welder’s mask decorated with flames, surrounded by sparks as he worked on a welding pipe.  His name was Matthew Taylor, and he recently joined the apprentice school after over a decade of non-union work.  We stopped and talked for a while.  He spoke with great pride that he had joined the program “so I can take care of my family and better myself.”  (See a short interview with Matthew here.)

Mike then showed us the training module in the parking lot behind the building—enormous pipes where apprentices are taught how to do miter joints from different size pipes, “how to make things fit up and work properly.”  They’re taught how to weld steel with different thicknesses—some called “schedule 40s,” others called carbon seal pipe and extra heavy wall.  They learn how to weld flat to start with, then give it a bend test.  “If it’s not properly welded,” Mike says, “it will break in half.”  Apprentices take many other classes as well.  There’s a pipefitting science class that teaches apprentices how to calculate for different angles.  There’s also a threading machine, where they learn how to work on threaded pipe.

The journeymen who come through this college have a great reputation with employers.  But Mike isn’t resting on his laurels.  At the moment, they’re getting ready to upgrade with more practice booths, so that practicing journeymen can come and upgrade their skills, “Just because you make it through an apprentice class doesn’t mean you’re on top of the world forever,” Mike told us.  “We have spaces in here for our mechanics to come back and freshen up and get ready to move on for whatever comes up.”

That restless dedication to quality, to education, and to serving their customers was evident at Local no. 540.  It’s a picture of working families that more Virginians deserve to know.

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