Feedback from “Is it Time to Unionize Tower Climbers?”

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This is feedback from my earlier post, “Is it Time to Unionize Climbers?” You have a voice so use it! Commentary in the podcast on the perception many people have of the union and the climbing industry.

Comment: I applaud the conversation.  This needs more focus and attention.  I’m not an expert on unions and maybe not a fan of them because of what I’ve heard about them, that being said, I feel this is one industry that could and should have one.  I’ve tried personally to open a Telecom University, funding was not there.  Watching the DOL and FCC try to get some proper training for the industry is interesting.  What is the right thing?  Not sure, but I’d like to see some changes and am willing to help.  Going back to the union idea – again, I’m not an expert.  I’d be more than willing to bring my 23 years of telecom experience and contacts to the table and help get a solution though.  If enough people came to a table and got involved, I have no doubt we could do it.

Response: Thanks for pointing out that the industry needs some help. I think the question is a good one as well.

Comment: I am former West Region Safety Training Manager for Nexius. They have put their climbers in a separate company so they can better manipulate wages, training, and safety regulation costs, without affecting the rest of Nexius assets. This can potentially put climbers in danger, and keep them at a lower wage rate, with less benefits than other Nexius employees. I would like to help organize, train, and unionize climbers in the desert southwest. I am currently starting my own company training tower climbers in the southwest.

Response: Thanks for pointing out how the climbers are separated out from the rest of the company. I have seen this done to keep insurance costs down as well as protect the company from liability. Insurance companies know that it is a high risk job and the rates show it. Pretty tough job when the expenses are so high for something that turf vendors want to pay $10/hour for the service.

Comment: 13 years in, have made tremendous sacrifice , it has to go, in a better direction with more gain for the individuals who truly make it happen.

Response: Once again this shows how hard the field crews work with little reward or a better future. Thank you for sharing and for the hard work.

Comment: I am not so sure being unionized would be the best thing for this industry, however I do see some positive points that would help the industry as well.
The biggest problem that I would see coming out of this, is that it would cause climbers to get lazy,  it’s no secret that these jobs are time sensitive, you show up to site you start working and you don’t stop, a lot of times not even for lunch, you eat while you work.  I have worked or been on a lot of jobs with union workers and to be honest, I have never seen one bust his but at the pace climbers generally work at.  It’s something we seasoned climbers pride ourselves on, while we complain at times, deep down we are proud we can show up day after day and spend 12 plus hours on the tower and knock a site out a day earlier then the projected completion.  I have noticed union workers do not have this mentality a lot if times and spend a lot of time socializing and working at their pace, rather than following the mentality of (not all climbers) but most.
I see a huge positive in an apprenticeship program and extended training, I have seen too many guys come into this industry with zero experience other than a two-day course whether in-house or at a school in certified climbing and rescue then they are thrown into a crew and expected to work, with zero rigging experience, and zero carrier technology experience in a sort of boot camp period for green hands, I think this is a good period, if placed with a good crew and foreman it really helps to set the tone of what is expected and that we work at a face paced, you are not on your phone and we are not here to socialize but to work and work hard.  However I would like to see guys with a lot more experience and training from some an apprenticeship program maybe 6 months long.  This will only improve confidence in the green hand.
I would like to see a better pay scale, even us more seasoned foreman make good money, but not the greatest, the carriers make a LOT of money and this job is not easy, we are out there battling the elements, fatigue, long hours, and physical abuse to the body, I just feel a lot of us should be paid more for the risks we take every day and the impact to our bodies we endure during the long hours, we are talking about being for the most part the back bone to these carriers that are which are multi billion dollar companies, yet green hands make about the same as someone working in a checkout line at a grocery store.  I believe there is room for a lot of improvement in the pay scales for the work we do and the risks we take.

Response: I have to tell you that the union guys I worked with were anything but lazy. However, I heard all of the stories about how they just sit around. I think the difference between those stories is that most shops are in it to make money. If someone sits around then it is hard to make money. Don’t get me wrong, you seem to have many people out there, union and non-union that are lazy and don’t care. Most tower climbers, union or non-union that I have worked with get it, they understand that time is money and that quality counts.

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Comment from email: The bigger question, why unionize anybody? That answer rests with your political tastes, government or private sector. In my opinion, labor unions are parasites, sucking much nutrition, i.e., $$$$, and returning little more than placebos, feel good benefits, feel good commandery and feel good job security. There are reasons that labor unions in general are nose-diving into non-existence and that is the expose’ that they are more form over little substance. Their intrinsic and bureaucratic relationship with government makes even the perceptual “form” lethargic and corrupt.

Among the “pros” mentioned, most important, “certification,” implies “qualification<’ which everybody wants but seldom get unless industry-driven. Industry is driven by results, i.e., $$$$$ – something which government and labor unions extract very well but don’t return, generate nor inspire. And so, your labor union certification programs would become pencil-whipping cheat sheet worthless documents – the “old guy” [seniority] is always top-paid and ranked and usually the biggest time-clock [productivity] cheater – the essence of labor unions.

In the roughly three and a half decades of cellular / wireless tower climbers the industry has been composed of every genre of beer-drinking blue-collar worker from farm boys to apprentice electricians to auto mechanics. Very few of them have understood the basics of RF, 50 ohms, impedance match, resonance, antenna gain or skin-effect. Even with Site Master sweep-generators being made readily available they still didn’t appreciate what the readings meant. Antennas and coax installed – a few days of freezing rain, all of a sudden high VSWR alarms are awakening the on-call cell tech and shutting down RBS sites – this was the norm more than the exception for at least two decades of the industry until the demand for some rudimentary education and certification began trickling in – maintenance overruns made operation managers pull their hair out.

Unionization? No.   Industry-driven standardized training and certification? Yes.

Response: This was a common response, many people really dislike unions. However, he mentions that the tower climbers are beer drinking buddies, I think that is a sign that you get what you pay for. I know many climbers that do understand RF and the mechanical design of the towers. However, I also know the ones that view it as a laborers job, a means to pay the bills. Again, I feel you get what you tolerate. If you want a laborer, chances are that is what you will get. The standards will be set soon, then there will be a weeding out of some of the bad eggs, but then the price will go up to have qualified people. Isn’t that where we are now?

Comment from email: Great post. I am a 15 yr member of IBEW LOCAL 1. Two years ago we sent 20 men, all journeymen, through CITCA competent climber, authorized climber and tower rescue class. We had an opportunity to work for Wigdahl Electric. All went well for a time. We all loved working on cell towers. We also had civil crews for base work. The company lost a big chunk of work thru Ericsson/Sprint so we diversified into ATT and T-Mobile. At some point earlier this year the management in St. Louis from Wigdahl was not able to secure more work for us and shut the doors to the St. Louis branch. We, LOCAL 1, are still trying to get into the tower business thru a contractor and have discussed all of the pros you have listed.

Response: Thanks for letting us know. Good luck for the future!

Comment: Approached some officials at NATE about doing just that, providing skilled workers on a permanent basis or temporary.  All ready trained and certified.  The response was indescribable. They were only interested in their bottom line, not safety or training or skills. Left that meeting with my head in my hands. So you understand me, I have been in this business for over 35 years as a union Ironworker.

Response: Thank you, appreciate the input.

Comment: I am a tower climber and I am a union member,,,,, The IBEW has no clue what I do for a living but damn sure can tell you about electricians!!!!
What a Joke!! Even insurance companies cannot understand what we do for a living!!!!

Response: I have run into that in the past where insurance people have no idea what you do. At that time we joined NATE and got an education on how to insure the company. I learned quite a bit from NATE about the business. It helped the company prepare and grown.

 What do you think?

Be smart, be safe, and pay attention to what you are doing! Adapt, improvise, to overcome. Stay Alive!

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Support the Hubble Foundation! When a climber gets hurt, they are there. When a climber is stranded they are there. When a climber gets stuck somewhere they are there. Would you want someone to help you out if that happened?

By the way, OSHA has not updated their site yet with the latest fatality numbers. OSHA Communications Tower

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  1. I work on towers for a while now. We are simply expendable. We are underappreciated and over worked. We give our lives to these companies and risk everything everyday. My company makes us rile our hours when we have to be on site over 12 hours. We don’t get breaks for food or even to take a shit sometimes, unless there’s a bucket and bag on the tower. We’re away from our families Monday through Friday with guys that often try to bully more inexperienced guys into quitting. We make the commo links happen. We are the industry. We should determine what our worth is. Not a company that works us illegally. All working should want to unionize to achieve a standard of better working conditions and pay rates and promotions. This turf vendor subcontractor arrangement is bullshit. They don’t care about safety. If they did, they wouldn’t let guys get high while on the tower. We should be making as much as lineman. They have us doing hazardous work that really takes a toll on our health.


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