“Life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue,” Johnny Cash sang. Dave Perkins adds that it’s difficult for an older construction craftsperson too. Perkins, a steamfitter in southeast Wisconsin, has built power plants and other facilities for Bechtel and Washington Group as well as smaller local contractors. But the work moved to more distant locations and it became increasingly sporadic. “It seems to happen once you get 50, 55,” he says. “Once you get older, there’s a lot of unemployment. They bow to the contractors, who want the young apprentices. You take the scraps.” Now 59, he is unemployed—retired, but hoping for a callback from the union.
He has worked in a factory, but it was not satisfying or steady. “They kept closing,” he says, so he went to the local technical school and got an associate’s degree and then an apprenticeship with Trane Inc. He has worked construction since 2003.
Perkins likes construction because of “the variety. I could never stand in a factory and work the same widget every day for eight or 10 hours. I like meeting the people. The best people in the world are the travelers. They teach you everything they know. The local guys are worried about you taking their job, and they hold a little bit back. The traveler knows it’s just a little bit of time, you’re down the road. These people have a little bit more of a union brotherhood belief inside of them.”
In Wisconsin, not surprisingly, the weather is a drawback. “There were times when it was so cold that the water in the pipes would freeze so hard it would break the weld,” Perkins says. Construction’s boom-and-bust cycles also are difficult. “One week you’re working six 10-hour days or seven days a week, the next week you’re laid off, sitting at home doing the wife’s chores.”
Working for large contractors like Bechtel and Washington Group, quality and safety are a lot better than when working for local contractors, Perkins says. “Their safety programs are strict. If you qualify under the safety program on one project, when you go to another project, they test you again.” He knows of people who have been maimed doing construction, but it doesn’t make him feel unsafe. “It’s up to you to take care of yourself, and the guys you work with take care of you and you take care of them. The equipment is there. It’s up to you to make sure that you use it,” he says.
Perkins is disturbed by conditions he sees in the news. “It’s going in the wrong direction,” he says. “You can see what’s happening in Europe, all the immigration that’s happening there. We’re going to have the same problem. The people don’t want to assimilate anymore, the way that our parents and grandparents did. They want their little niche places. A lot of them just cause trouble. The United States has lost its morality.” With the general election coming up, he didn’t have a preference before the field was narrowed, but thinks he would have voted for Bernie Sanders (I). He favors some of the socialist ideas Sanders promotes and is bothered by the fact that there is still so much poverty in a wealthy country like the U.S. “A society is judged on how it treats the poor and the homeless,” he says. But now, “if the choice is Hillary and Trump, it’s got to be Trump.
Despite the hardships, despite the weather, despite the boom and bust, Perkins likes construction and is satisfied with the compensation. “The trades is one of the last places in the United States where you can actually get a pension, rather than a 401(k),” he says.
He’s proud of his work and of the projects he has worked on, “every one of them,” he says. “I’ll be going someplace with my kids and I’ll point out a building and say, ‘I worked on that building.’ There’s a sense of pride in it. When you build something, at the end of the day, you know you built something that’s going to be there 60, 80, 100 years.”
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