Before Al DeVita was a training director for the Northern Nevada Laborers’ apprenticeship program, he was just another kid from New Jersey trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
DeVita’s father died when he was nine years old, something that he says “changed the course” of his life. His mother bought a nearby farm after his father’s death, where he spent most of his childhood.
DeVita hated high school and barely made it through. After he graduated, he felt directionless and bounced around, moving from Jersey to Arizona with a friend and then back to Jersey. Eventually, DeVita was reintroduced to the uncle of a friend of his, who sensed his aimlessness and decided to help him out by giving him a chance to work in construction.
“If you can walk and breathe, you can get into construction,” DeVita said.
DeVita started working as a laborer, learning the ins and outs of the construction industry. He loaded and unloaded materials, built structures, operated equipment, and assisted other laborers with any tasks that needed to be completed. DeVita says things were simpler then–within 30 days, he was a member of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). That was 1981.
Being in the world of organized labor changed DeVita’s life, providing him a stable career and security. He celebrated his 43rd anniversary of being a union member in October.
The 63-year-old now lives in Reno, where he helps a new generation of young people figure out what to do with their lives as a training director with LIUNA.
In this position, DeVita is involved in developing curriculum for apprentices and helping manage and administer the union’s training programs.
On the day-to-day, DeVita acts as a guide for young laborers—he spends a lot of his time visiting and counseling apprentices, making sure they have all they need to succeed in the laborers’ union. He works with hundreds of them a year. In fact, this winter, he expects to have 20 new apprentices per week.
Labor and Biden’s Policies
Such an influx of new apprentices is exactly what Democratic policymakers are hoping for. Under the Biden administration, Democrats have passed several union-friendly policies such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The two laws have provided significant funding for apprenticeships and training programs and invested billions in construction and manufacturing.
As a result of the legislation, the training for the apprentices DeVita works with has changed as well. He says there’s been more focus put on solar power, specifically.
Under the IRA, manufacturers get subsidies for building renewable energy products and utilities get credits for choosing solar and wind energy over fossil fuel plants.
DeVita lauded the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s prevailing wage standards for how they benefit union workers. Most of the construction projects funded or supported through the law will be subject to these 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.
“It just gives our contractors a leg up,” he said.
DeVita believes Biden’s pro-union policies are also going to help union membership grow in the Reno area. Because of this, DeVita says he plans to vote for Biden again in 2024.
“I believe in Joe Biden,” he said.
The Benefits of Union Work
DeVita stresses two things to the apprentices he works with: benefits and pensions. He also tells them to be patient—usually laborers have to work a few years before their benefits kick in. For example, even though DeVita himself joined the union in 1981, his medical benefits didn’t kick in until 1983. He says sometimes this frustrates them.
“They’re in a situation where they’re not making great money, $22 an hour, and they’re paying union dues maybe for the first time in their lives. They don’t have benefits right away, and so the burden on them is a lot more in the beginning,” DeVita said. “I talk about how there’s a steady climb. Then they’ll have medical benefits, they’ll start to get a pension. I tell them about my experience.”
DeVita also tells the apprentices he trains to be patient about the amount of money they’re making, because over time, union work pays off. After all, unionized construction workers make an average of $400 per week more than their non-union peers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
DeVita says it’s a privilege to work with young people, especially those who may not have much guidance about future careers and what opportunities are available to them. It’s personal for him, since he was once lost himself.
“The choices are kind of limited for a young person that doesn’t have college, right?” he said. “This (tradeswork) is something where you can look back at the end of the day and see what you’ve accomplished.”
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