Is It Time to Unionize Tower Climbers?

So one thing that is often mentioned on in the Facebook groups is the question, “Should Tower Climbers Unionize?” I am not sure what you think but it would be a good way for the tower climber to be protected. I will get into the question below.

Would an existing union accept the tower climbers in force? The confusion that happens with the current unions is “which one would accept the climbers?” It used to be the Ironworkers when climbers built towers, but the climber does more that steel work in today’s world. Maybe the Communications Workers of America seems like a fit but they are looking at lighter duty jobs with less risk. I thought the IBEW would be a good fit since I know climbers that are already part of that union but it really is for wiring professionals, electrical and communications. I am not sure they would have the climbers join them in full force. I am reaching out to the IBEW for more information.

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Should climbers unionize? To be honest there are tower climbers in different unions. I know several in the IBEW. The people I know that are in the unions were coming from another profession, electricians or communications or Ironworkers or someone like that. I am not aware of any union that a tower climber can go into without another trade attached to it even though climbers need to know several trades to do their job. I thought that to unionize is something that many people talk about, but not many people know what to do next.

Here is a list I came up with based on what I read. These are pros and cons, but it is up to you to decide which is which. I am only going to state what I think will happen. Feel free to leave me your opinions!

  • Pro – The tower climbing apprenticeship programs would be implemented. There would be a structure to how the Greenhorn is brought in and trained.
  • Pro or Con – The tower climber pay would be structured and set. This is something that you may or may not want. Tower climbing has been commoditized in the past years where many companies just hired young people to do all the heavy lifting. This has really hurt the industry because safety and talent suffered. It takes training to do the tasks they are required to do. The original thought was to have the green guys work around one experienced guy. Well, that is not working out so well because if the experienced guy has a problem, who will help them?
  • Pro – There would be structured training outside of climbing training. What I mean by that is that an organized union has more training available and makes it required to stay current. Also, when a company or crew would search the union for people, they would look at the climbers resume and certifications. So the union would make sure that your certifications would go with the climber and not stay with the company.
  • Pro – Certifications would go with the climber as long as they were in the union. This would be enforced by the union. See my post on “Training Certifications May not go with you”.
  • Pro –Mandatory repeated training! Big time positive thing here because many climbers get trained one and don’t practice. Practice makes us better at what we do, from sports to testing to work. When you have the opportunity to save a life, being prepared is being ready, and that involves practice, practice, and more practice.
  • Pro – Certifications would matter! What I mean by that is that the union would have the resume of every climber in it and if someone came to the local union hall looking for a climber that has specific fiber skills and can weld, that is what they would get. Skills would be out there for all to see and companies would hire for specific skills. That is how I see the IBEW do it today.
  • Pro – Certifications would stay up to date. The local union hall would make sure of that.
  • Con – Strikes would happen. Not everyone would agree, but if the union called a strike on a carrier, you would need to strike to show solidarity. Everyone sees this as good until they have to stay off work for more than a few weeks, think about it.
  • Pro or Con – Prices would go up for the customer because pricing would be consistent for an area. Prices would increase in many areas. There would still be competition from non-union shops. Remember that some area are already union only, Philadelphia, NYC, Boston, and more.
  • Pro – If you were in the union, you would be recognized as well-trained and as a professional. I think that most people would view a union electrician as a professional by default. I am not putting down other non-union electricians, but they would need to have a good reputation from their customers whereas a union electrician is expected to be a true professional.
  • Pro – The union would have pull in the government. That means the tower climber would have serious representation in the federal and possibly the state governments. This would balance out the way it is now. Who represents the tower climbers now? NATE, yes. The FCC and DOL, yes. They are doing all they can but in the end the lawmakers respond growing their campaigns. There are heavy taxes on cell phones, and there are lobbyists for most carriers, and the tower climbers aren’t represented in any of those groups.
  • Pro –If you put your name in at the union hall, they would call you when they had work if you met the job requirements.
  • Con – You would need to pay union dues, but that may also have your vacation pay and your retirement built-in.
  • Pro or Con – You would need to sign into the local union hall wherever you worked, this may require a local rep to work with you or oversee your work.

 I wanted to put some feedback in here from some people who realize how bad things can get out there.

These are from my “More Feedback from You Wireless Workers”.

Comment: It has definitely become an us against them atmosphere, right down to our own pm’s and cm’s that’ll push-push-push, work 14×7 [14 hour days by 7 days a week] until the projects over then” we’ll call you when we need you “,or until you quit just to get some sleep. All the money in the world isn’t worth it if you destroy yourself to make it.

Response: I hear this from so many people that it is crazy, but not fair. It becomes all about the work.

Comment: I agreed with Dave Anthony on nearly every point. If he treats safety the way he said he did, I appreciate that sort of leadership. Unfortunately, the majority of employers out there today, make Dave an aberration.
Someone pays for this cost of doing business. My question is; who pays the price? Ask any family member who has lost a loved one. Ask any worker, confined to an adult home, wheelchair, or any career ending injury.
I have seen far too many families and extended families supported by a climber, turn with no other options to public assistance, in the event of a catastrophic injury or death.
One clear fundamental difference I have from Dave, was his call for industry change, from the “top-down”.  That has been attempted by NATE and wireless industry interests for decades.
All of NATE’s policy agendas have been blaming the dumb cowboy who refuses to tie off. Need an example? Look at any of their posters from the “Tie or Die” initiative a few years ago. More recently, their two public service announcements earlier this year, promoting their “24/7” campaign. Listen closely to WHO they are talking about. The shifty tower contractor? Carriers and turfers? Nope! That employee who throws caution to the wind and free-climbs because he doesn’t follow the rules. They, are the focus of the industry fatality rate.
You make some good points about the way the industry does business Wade. But I feel more can be done than just accepting things the way they are, and getting used to the way business is done.
TIRAP, is another industry gimmick. Just another top-down approach to train more workers. Few details have emerged about this wonder of the industry. You can go to the link Wade provided and see what they are intending to do.
The few graduates who complete this program are expected to enter the field with immersion in industry trainings and certifications. Yes, MORE CERTIFICATIONS!
These certified experts are expected to START in this workforce as “top hands”, “CM’s”, and “PM’s”. Not well seasoned or experienced climbers. Do you see some friction, when these men hit the field and see the way work is shoved from the top-down, into the climber’s throats? How do these certs make these graduates, any more prone to industry pressure to get the work done without proper gear, planning, material, or design? Especially climbers who have many years experience, watching classroom climbers being hired, instead of them!
Unions! Union apprenticeships have been a well proven way to get workers “real-time”, “hands on” work experience under a mentor who is a master tradesman. This goes to every rank and file member!
Apprenticeships are a proven method to experience workers to a safe level of competence. Over a period of years, with work and classroom experience that is standardized BY THE WORKERS.
I don’t see the entire industry warming up to this idea right now. But I offer a “bottom-up” approach that reaches out to every rank and file climber, instead of these elite, classroom climbers who are going to take management positions. Not climbing positions!
Wade, I appreciate your critique of the industry pressure cooker that is responsible for filling holes in the ground with bodies. I would rather see climbers realizing their potential and take pride in future climbers coming in.
As I said, the climbers have not seen this for themselves yet. So we will see more of Dave Anthony’s top-down safety solutions by this industry (I mean no disrespect to him). His points were mostly spot-on!
In the meantime, NATE will proclaim how they are saving lives. More mothers and fathers will bury their children. Widows, widowers, and children will cling to some hope, that the call they just got about their lost loved one is just a horrible dream. That their loved one will come walking through the door any moment. Just before reality sets in and they feel the burn in their guts. As Kurt Vonnegut used to put it, “And so it goes”.

Response: Thank you! This has hit a lot of points and is hard to clarify all of them but that is why I wrote this post.

OK, OK, OK, just some food for thought. Tell me that you think!

Be smart, be safe, and pay attention. Create the plan, follow the plan, deviate from the plan to find success.

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