By Kelly Candaele
I met Brian Smith and his grandmother Jean on a Sunday morning in South Los Angeles. Brian was a recent graduate of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11’s “boot camp” training program designed to prepare new members for the rigors of the trade. I had first come across Brian at the Wilshire Grand Center construction site as he waited for an elevator so he could move his cart of materials to a higher floor. It was only his third day on the job – he seemed enthusiastic but unsure of what the future held.
Brian told me that a union electrician from the neighborhood had come to his home in his off time to help his grandmother with some wiring. Brian, who had been working as a marketer in the music industry, was looking for something more stable – a career he could depend on. The Local 11 electrician invited him to look into his trade.
Brian said he was raised by his grandmother, who “kept a firm hand on my shoulder” – the touch of love and restraint that most young people need.
After later meeting Jean, it was clear to me why Brian has made positive choices for himself. She is wise and strong in her beliefs, able to get to the core of things without beating around the bush. “I expect him to have a family and I don’t want him to be too old before he gets married,” she said, responding to my question about what she wanted for Brian.
In rereading the transcript of our interview at their home, I was struck by the individual and social connections they both have made. Jean spoke of her 20-plus years as a member of the United Auto Workers in South Gate and how her union helped her buy a home and raise her family – including Brian. She mentioned how her church provided spiritual sustenance and civic direction.
Brian talked about what he owed to his grandmother and to the IBEW – not about what other people or organizations owed him. When Brian gets up at 4 a.m. his grandmother is also up to help prepare his lunch for the day. She commands Brian’s respect and he gives her money from every pay check. He has also promised to help her achieve a dream of traveling to Europe.
In his book Which Side Are You On, labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan writes about the absence of the rhetoric of individualism from union halls and labor rallies. It’s a “deafening Niagara-type silence,” he observes. “No one is against it but it never comes up.”
In using a group and collectivist language, unions are at a cultural disadvantage. They cannot utilize one of the strongest themes in American social life – the sovereignty of the free and independent individual, the popular yet self-serving belief that whatever success we have has been achieved by our own efforts alone. They are simply not built that way. If you want an antidote to this type of narcissism however, Brian and Jean can supply it.