The Carpenters Union region that covers Southern California, Las Vegas and Phoenix recently elected the first Hispanic to lead the powerful labor group.

Pete Rodriguez, a longtime union official, is the new executive secretary-treasurer (EST) of the Southwest Regional Council of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which represents 58,000 members across Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Southern California.

Rodriguez says that being Hispanic and a Spanish speaker gives him extra credibility on the jobsite. “I can talk with Spanish-speaking workers in their native language and be able to communicate that to the folks who don’t speak Spanish,” he says.

Rodriguez, who joined the union in 1996 doing highway and bridge work, says, “A lot of people broke the barriers” before him, thanking “pioneering Hispanic and African-American carpenters and Anglo contractors who gave them the opportunity.”

Rodriguez, 49, also gives credit to his father, an immigrant who arrived in the U.S. undocumented and worked as a union laborer. He says his father encouraged him to become a carpenter and inspired him when things got tough for a young apprentice.

Early on he was considering quitting, but his father “was on my first job,” he says and recalls thinking, “‘If you quit, it’s going to impact him and everyone else.’”

The union and the construction industry grow stronger when they are “accepting of the different cultures,” Rodriguez says. “That gave people like me and my dad a chance to work out in the field.”

Rodriguez says that ideal helped him persevere when he would sometimes face harassment.

“A lot of times the worst thing you can find at a jobsite outhouse is what’s written inside there,” he says.

Rodriguez says he “takes a lot of pride” in his historic election, but in his role as head of the Los Angeles-based council, he plans to “put it on a shelf to show that I’m not just a 'Hispanic EST.'”

He says he wants to spread the word that with hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure spending coming, “This is a great time to be a union carpenter.”

“Construction is the last chance for middle-class America. You can’t make a living working at a warehouse. Our carpenters make good money, have health care and a pension.”

Rodriguez was elected in a late February special election that was necessitated after his predecessor, Dan Langford, was appointed to head the Carpenters Union’s Western District.