Plumbers donate services and materials to Somerville school


When Saint Theresa’s Catholic School, which was founded in 1923, wanted to update its aging bathrooms, Local 12 and the GBPCA answered the call. The union’s members provided the labor for the remodeling project, and the contractor group donated the fixtures and the materials.

According to Rick Carter, director of Local 12’s training center, the crew for the project was mostly first-year apprentices. As he explains, it’s great to be able to help a needy organization, but the project was also a wonderful learning experience for the new apprentices. Because they were retrofitting and demoing the existing bathrooms, it offered a rare opportunity for them to see and work with older fixtures, piping, and materials.

“The great thing about doing a job where we are donating our time is that there is a lot less stress. The deadlines are often less strict,” Carter notes. “The journeymen aren’t under the gun either, so they can take the time to really watch over the apprentices and make it educational.”

The project included the replacement of 16 toilets and 2 sinks in the girls’ bathroom as well as 8 toilets, 8 urinals, and 2 sinks in the boys’ bathroom. The work was done off hours on Saturdays. Business agents Jim Vaughan and Frank Amato helped oversee the project.

The Somerville school serves students in pre-K through grade 8. Its diverse mix of students are from Somerville, Medford, Cambridge, Everett, Arlington, and other surrounding communities. Saint Theresa’s also operates an after-school program.

“This was a great opportunity to give back to the community,” Amato says. “Our membership is always looking for ways to help out.”

Amato elected business agent

Last year, Plumbers Local 12 members elected Frank Amato to serve as one of the union’s business agents. He is no stranger to the local, however. For the past five years, Amato has focused on organizing as the director of business development and recruitment.

A plumber since 1989, the business agent wasn’t always a Local 12 member. As a high school student enrolled in his town’s vocational technical program, one of his instructors told his class that unions were terrible. The impressionable teen believed the falsehoods. After graduating, Amato worked for some non-union plumbing and heating shops and later established his own plumbing business in partnership with his brother.

It was Joe Ferraro, his future father-in-law and a member of Operating Engineers Local 4, who set him straight about unions and encouraged him to apply to Local 12. Once he joined and understood the financial security, the benefits, the training, the fellowship, and other advantages that the local provided, Amato became an evangelist for the organization.

“I appreciated how much Local 12 had helped me and saw what it meant to other members,” he says. “I thought how great it would be to get the word out to non-union plumbers–to share my story and to dispel the myths and misrepresentations.”

That led him to the organizing position. Now, Amato says he hopes that he can serve as an example of the opportunities available to members.

“That’s one of the reasons I ran for business agent,” he says. “I saw an opportunity and I wanted to give back to the union that’s done so much for me and my family.”

In addition to representing projects and Local 12 business in parts of Boston, Amato is also focused on areas outside of the city. For example, he oversees the Plumbers 911 program, which connects homeowners and small businesses throughout the region with Local 12-affiliated plumbing contractors. And he was elected to be the president of the Merrimack Valley Building Trades.

“By helping the building trades deal with issues and developing relationships with general contractors and politicians, I feel that I can help secure more jobs for Local 12 members,” Amato says.

“It’s great to have Frank on our business agent team,” says Tim Fandel, the local’s business manager. “He brings a lot of experience as well as a lot of passion to the position. We are fortunate to have him.”

O'Connell Plumbing Local 12 support Afghan refugees Newburyport MA

Plumbers lend a hand to refugees

With a war raging, mass shootings, and other unrest, the world can often seem like an unsettling and unfriendly place. But amid the chaos and confusion, it’s heartening to find acts of kindness and compassion that demonstrate the basic decency to which most folks aspire. There are inspiring stories, even in dark circumstances, that can help restore one’s faith in people. This is one of those stories.

When the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021, conflict and the threat of violence displaced even more Afghans from their long-suffering, war-torn country. Millions of them sought refuge in other places. A few Afghan families ended up in Newburyport. The community opened its doors and its hearts to welcome them. Local 12 and the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA) heeded the call and supported the efforts.

It was Hugh Kelleher, a longtime Newburyport resident, retired Local 12 member, and retired executive director of the GBPCA, who made the connection. He read about the refugees’ plight in the local newspaper and learned that the city’s religious leaders were seeking help and donations to provide shelter for the Afghans. When Kelleher saw that the temporary housing lacked some basic plumbing needs, that piqued his interest.

“Over the years, there have been many projects that Local 12 and the contractors have helped out on,” he says. “I thought this would be a very worthy project.”

Kelleher contacted John Marani, president of the GBPCA, and Tim Fandel, Local 12 business manager, seeking their assistance. Both were eager to help, and the organizations’ trustees decided to get involved. The two groups joined forces and funded a grant to underwrite the cost of labor and materials needed to perform the plumbing work at the living space provided by the Unitarian church, one of the city’s participating houses of worship.

As Rebecca Bryan, minister of the First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist Church, explains, its congregation is hosting a large Afghan family in Parish Hall, a building adjacent to the church. Typically used for Sunday school classes and social functions, the converted living space did not have a shower, nor a washer or dryer. Bryan, who serves as Newburyport’s chair of Interfaith Coalition of Clergy, reached out to Kelleher, who had helped do plumbing work at the temporary housing provided by the city’s Episcopalian church for another refugee family.

Kelleher brought in Kevin O’Connell, owner of O’Connell Plumbing and Heating in Salem, to look at the project. Together, they determined that a shower could be added to the existing bathroom; a closet could be converted into a second bathroom, with a toilet, shower, and sink; and a washer and dryer could be installed in the hall. They also realized that a larger hot water heater would be needed.

“Honest to God, they didn’t just help out,” the minister says about the plumbers. “What they did was remarkable. They just made it happen.”

When Norman Fine at supply house F.W. Webb heard about the project, he offered a hot water heater, gas piping, and all other plumbing materials at a greatly reduced cost. Thanks to the grant from the union and the GBPCA, the Local 12 members working for the Salem shop got paid for their work, but O’Connell did not add any profit to the job.

According to the contractor, an architect from the church volunteered to draw up plans for the project. That was indicative of the broad-based support that the community provided.

“We had to move some heavy supplies,” O’Connell says. “The next thing I knew, the Newburyport High School basketball team showed up to help.”

Over 100 people have been involved with the refugee family at the Unitarian church alone, Bryan estimates, helping them learn English, book medical appointments, and navigate services, among other things. Hairdressers, bike shop owners, and others in the city have stepped forward to do their part.

O’Connell can empathize with the refugees and understands the outpouring of support. “It’s terrible to be uprooted from your home, having to live someplace completely different and foreign,” he says. “It had to be extremely disorienting and frightening for them.”

Mohammed, one of the members of the family, had been a security guard at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. When the American security forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban moved in and took control of the city. They began going house to house to interrogate the residents and paid a visit to Mohammed.

“They knew that he had helped the U.S.,” Kelleher says. “The Taliban were not going to be fans of this guy.”

He and his family ran out the back door, escaped to the airport, and somehow got on a plane. Their journey took them to Qatar and then Germany, before landing in the U.S. and staying briefly at military facilities in Virginia and New Jersey. Eventually, the refugees made their way to Newburyport.

The family is enjoying the newly outfitted home in the church’s hall and is appreciative of the help they’ve received from the plumbers and others in the community. Likewise, Bryan says that she and the congregation are grateful for the plumbers’ support.

“I can’t say enough positive things,” she adds. 

The living space is full of life, laughter, and good food, according to the minister. The family have made Newburyport their home. When one of the daughters graduated eighth grade, she was given an award for perseverance. “I could cry,” says Bryan, when sharing the accomplishment. “The whole city has embraced them, and they’ve embraced the city.”

The goal, eventually, is to help the family find permanent housing in the area. The organizations that have been helping all the Afghan families in Newburyport hope to create three properties that would be designated for refugees in perpetuity.

Organizations support tech schools

The GBPCA joined forces with Local 12 and recently donated a total of $9,000 to three vocational schools in the region: Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston, Quincy High School’s Career Vocational & Technical Education Program, and Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School, located in Haverhill.

“It’s important to make the programs strong so that the students get a top-notch education,” says Andrew DeAngelo, the PCA’s executive director, explaining one of the motivating factors for the gifts. By connecting with the programs, it also helps plumbing students bridge the gap between graduating from a tech school and joining the workforce in the field. “It helps make sure the students know about the opportunities in the local and are familiar with our contractors,” DeAngelo adds.

It is also a great way for Local 12 to attract young people interested in the trade. In addition to the donations, the organizations have ongoing relationships with the vocational programs. Both the union and the PCA regularly conduct sessions for juniors and seniors, letting them know resources that are available, what they have to do to apply to the local, and other info.

The donations are intended for plumbing instructors to purchase materials, equipment, and other items that they need for their shops and programs, but that the school district may not have included in their budgets.

Separately, the PCA made an additional donation of $1,400 worth of power tools to Madison Park. Among the items were Milwaukee impact drivers and batteries, an electric air compressor, and a Dewalt brad nailer. 

“The executive board of the PCA wanted to make a big impact at Madison Park,” says DeAngelo. The executive director got in touch with the school’s plumbing instructor to find out what the program could use. “We took his direction and ran with it.”

New Somerville High plumbing program

As part of its Center for Career and Technical Education, Somerville High School started a plumbing program as well as an HVAC program during the last school year. The programs are in the city’s new school, which opened in March.

To help support and guide the plumbing program, representatives of Local 12 and the Plumbing Contractors Association joined the school’s advisory committee. Among their roles, they will assist in developing curriculum for the new program. Committee members include Frank Amato, director of business development and recruitment for Local 12, Matt Messinger, recruitment specialist for Local 12, Andrew DeAngelo, PCA executive director, and Dan Bent, executive VP for PCA contractor American Plumbing and Heating.

According to DeAngelo, in addition to their work on the committee, the industry leaders will support the Somerville High program with donations, help facilitate field trips, assist with job placement, and conduct info sessions about Local 12’s apprenticeship program for the school’s juniors and seniors. “We get involved in a similar way with the plumbing program at Madison Park in Boston,” he says.

The tech schools provide a feeder program of sorts for the union’s training center. “We want to give city kids an opportunity to have a shot at the apprenticeship program,” DeAngelo adds.

Herbert Tyler’s Local 12 dues card from the 1960s

Four generations of Tylers at Local 12

 “It’s a great life being a plumber,” says Richard “Tim” Tyler. “It’s great working as part of the union.” 

It’s so great, in fact, being a Local 12 plumber has become something of a family tradition for the Tyler clan. Tim’s grandfather, father, and brother all pursued careers as union plumbers. Soon, his son will follow in their footsteps.

It’s a recurring theme at Local 12. There are many instances of family members taking cues from their parents or other relatives and entering the trade. But it’s notable when four successive generations of a family lay claim to a union card.

“The Tylers show that Local 12 really resonates with families and plays an important role in their lives,” says Tim Fandel, business manager. “We continue to be viable and relevant through the years.”

The saga of the Tylers all started with Herbert Tyler. A “small-time plumber in Bangor, Maine,” according to Tim, Herbert packed up his family of seven and moved them to the Boston area in 1945. A friend of his told him that Local 12 was looking for members, and, sensing opportunity, Herbert didn’t hesitate.

He did, indeed, find opportunity as a union plumber. Working for Ferris and Mahoney (a mechanical contractor that is no longer in business), Herbert ran large projects. He overcame adversity and was well respected by his employers and those who worked for him, according to Tim.

“He had a learning disability and was unable to read blueprints,” he explains about his grandfather. Nevertheless, Herbert understood large, complicated systems and was able to successfully lead his crews. “All his jobs made money,” Tim says with a laugh.

Tim Tyler (R) and his son, Jake.

Later in his career, Herbert became a plumbing inspector in Bedford, Massachusetts, his hometown. Even as an older gentleman, Tim remembers that his grandfather was always on the move and was an especially fast walker. “You had to run to keep up with him,” he says.

Tim’s father, Richard H. Tyler, served in the Marine Corps. When he finished his military duty, he too joined Local 12 and entered its apprenticeship program. Among the contractors he worked for were Ferris and Mahoney and Baystate York. One of the signature projects Richard worked on was the Prudential Center.

“He ran work at a relatively young age,” Tim says. “He was very good at it like his father. He was a small guy, but everybody was afraid of him. He just had that look about him.”

They got the work done, adds Tim. And despite his father’s fearsome look, he says, everybody liked him. A hard-working man, Richard put in 60 hours a week and then had side jobs to supplement his income.

As children, Tim and his brother Scott remember helping their dad clean up scrap copper and other tasks. They got their hands dirty and learned about the trade. The work and the life of a union plumber called out to both of them.

They joined Local 12 and often found themselves working together for contractors such as Kennedy Mechanical, Cannistraro, and, more recently, Pinnacle Construction Services. Tim also logged ten years with PCA contractor, J.C. Higgins, working on landmark projects such as the Big Dig and the Convention Center.

Scott and Tim worked together for a decade with their father when Richard opened his own shop, Tyler Plumbing. A Local 12 signatory contractor, the shop specialized in medical gas. Tyler Plumbing worked on a lot of nursing home projects as well as several VA hospitals.

The business was tough financially for his dad, Tim says. “At the time, Local 12 didn’t have programs for smaller shops like they do today. He would have benefitted from that so much. The union has come a long way.”

Richard didn’t start Tyler Plumbing until he was 50. When he closed the shop, he retired.

In addition to Tim and Scott, Richard had two daughters. Tim says that the boyfriend of one of his sisters asked Richard for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He responded that he didn’t like what the suitor did for a living.

“If you want to marry my daughter, you’ll have to join the plumbers union,” Richard told him.

“That’s what he did,” says Tim. “He had no choice in the matter.”

It should probably come as no surprise that Richard convinced his other son-in-law to become a plumber also.

While plumbing was all in the family, Richard initially had other plans for Scott. Always a good student, he wanted his younger son to go to college. During his senior year in high school, Scott began working regularly with his father on side jobs.

“He put me in the lousiest bathrooms and had me gut them out. I think he was hoping to scare me away,” Scott says. “Instead, I loved it.”

Scott continues to specialize working on projects that feature medical gas. With Pinnacle, he has been running many jobs in the Longwood area, including projects at Beth Israel Deaconess, Boston Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute.

Now 61, Tim says that he is getting near the downside of his career and is looking forward to retirement. His son, Jake, however, is just beginning his plumbing career.

His story has a familiar ring to it. Starting as a young teenager, Jake says that his father brought him to side jobs on weekends. He has been tooling around boilers, water heaters, and sinks for many years. Jake enjoyed the trade so much, he went to Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica and began working at a plumbing shop in his junior year.

“I’m carrying on the family tradition,” he says proudly.

The 18-year-old graduated high school last spring and recently applied to Local 12. He hopes to apprentice with large contractors and do major commercial projects such as high rises. And so, the Tyler family’s plumbing legacy continues.

“Plumbing and Local 12 have been very good to us,” concludes Scott.

How do you get water to the middle of nowhere?

Local 12 volunteers build wash stations for Navajo Water Project

“People need water and sewerage,” says Rick Carter, Local 12’s training director. “Most people take running water and indoor plumbing for granted.” That is, until something fails. Then they realize the critical role that plumbers play. Some folks, however, don’t have ready access to life’s most basic needs. For example, one in three people live without a sink or a toilet–that’s 67 times more likely than other Americans–on the Navajo Nation, a vast swath of land that spans Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Plumbers are rising to the challenge.

The United Association (Local 12’s parent organization) organized the Wash Station Challenge over the summer. The goal was to construct 20 outdoor wash stations targeted for remote areas in Navajo Nation. As part of the UA effort, volunteers at Local 12’s training center built two of the units.

The UA first got involved with the Navajo Nation two years ago when it partnered with the International Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Foundation (IWSH) and the DigDeep organization’s Navajo Water Project to build a water tank, septic system, bathrooms, and more in New Mexico.

“It was like that show, ‘Restaurant Impossible,’ ” says Tom Bigley, director of plumbing services for the UA. “I called it ‘bathroom impossible.’ But we got it done. It was very rewarding.” Bigley serves on the board of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), and IWSH is the association’s public charity.

Last year, Plumbers Local 400 in Wisconsin helped develop and build a prototype wash station. Its success led to this year’s Wash Station Challenge. Amid the pandemic, the Navajo Nation has experienced some of the highest infection rates in the U.S. With running water scarce on the reservation, people have limited ability to wash their hands and help prevent the virus from spreading. The wash stations are intended to support and enable handwashing in local communities and remote households to help halt COVID’s spread and promote public health and hygiene awareness.

“When Harry Brett and Tim Fandel learned what we did, they offered to help with future projects,” Bigley says.

“We are honored to be asked to help and happy to do so,” says Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. He notes that the joint labor-management group that the union has with its affiliated contractors provided the funds for the project’s materials. “It was very generous of them,” Fandel says.

The stations, which are about five-and-a-half feet wide and deep, contain a 210-gallon water tank and a sink assembly with a drop-down steel mesh countertop on one of its sides. The tank is inside an insulated cabinet and includes a heating element to prevent the water from freezing during the winter. The mobile units sit on steel frames with large wheels.

“They look like chicken coops that are bound for the moon or like the Mars rovers,” says Bigley with a laugh.

A wash station in use at Navajo Nation.

The first step in assembling the stations was to build their frames, which involved welding aluminum stainless steel and carbon stainless steel. The training center’s welding instructor, Bobby Niles, and two apprentices in Local 12’s welding program came in Saturdays and some nights to work on the frame. Other instructors and apprentices handled the units’ shells, which included wooden doors. The stations were built in the training center’s new annex shop.

Some of the stations use electricity. The off-grid models that Local 12 built include solar panels. Training center instructor Johnny Tierney, who is a licensed electrician, wired them so they would be self-powered.

“There was a lot of cutting and fabrication to build the stations,” Carter says adding that they took from May to September to complete. “We have great instructors and apprentices who wanted to be involved and donated their time.”

Navajo Nation UA Wash Station Challenge Local 12 Boston
Left: Local 12 volunteers welded the frames for the wash stations. Right: One of Local 12’s stations under construction.

The training director says that several partners got involved with the project as well. For example, Ferguson Plumbing donated the sinks and the water tanks. Local 12 neighbor Gilbert & Becker, which is a roofing contractor, put metal skins on the exterior of the stations to make them weathertight. When the units were completed, the company also supplied a forklift to load them–all 1,100 lbs. of them–onto moving trucks for shipping.

Bound for the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Carter says that the location is “literally in the middle of nowhere.” Because there is no street address, the shipper had to use GPS coordinates. Once they arrived on site, DigDeep distributed and installed the washing stations. “Hopefully they will get years of use out of them,” Carter says.

“I think everyone’s aware that Native Americans have been treated unfairly,” says Bigley. “Our people like to work with their hands, and this is a way that we can help. It really resonates.” He adds that the UA will continue working with Navajo Nation, and that the next challenge will likely be bathroom units.

Whatever the project, Carter and Fandel say that Local 12 stands ready to help.

Bargaining in good faith

Earlier this year, members of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association and Plumbers Local 12 sat across from one another and ironed out the details of a four-year contract. The document they developed specifies the terms and conditions by which contractors employ the Local’s plumbers and includes issues such as wages, benefits, and safety practices. The process for the meetings, which included representatives of both management and labor that negotiated on behalf of their groups, is known as collective bargaining, and the result of the negotiations is a collective bargaining agreement.

The collective bargaining process is at the very heart of what unions are all about. It is one of the key attributes that distinguishes Local 12 members and the union’s affiliated contractors from their counterparts at non-union plumbing shops and the plumbers who work for them. The employee-employer relationship is fundamentally different.

According to both sides, the negotiations reflected the positive relationship that the PCA and Local 12 leadership have enjoyed for many years. Unlike the stereotype of labor and management being inherently suspicious of one another and, in some cases, at each other’s throats, the two organizations operate more out of a common belief that in partnership they can help each other succeed. It’s a collaborative rather than an adversarial relationship.

“The best deal is one that benefits both sides,” says John Marani, president of the PCA and lead negotiator for management at the collective bargaining meetings. “That’s the attitude we went in with, and that characterizes where we landed.”

Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager and the chief negotiator for labor, expresses a similar view. “Our shared goals are woven together,” he says. “There is an underlying incentive for us to reach an equitable agreement.”

That doesn’t mean it is always sunshine and rainbows. The two leaders acknowledge that the sides have their differences and separate objectives as well. While they might not agree on everything, however, they say that they are always respectful of one another. And when they reach an impasse, they resort to a time-honored negotiation strategy: compromise.

As an example, Local 12 came to the table asking that Martin Luther King Jr. Day be recognized as a formal holiday. After some discussion, MLK Day was added to the holiday calendar in the collective bargaining agreement. Including the paid holiday imposed a financial impact on the contractors, a point that Fandel acknowledges.

Jeremy Ryan, the contractor association’s executive director, noted that he believes the plumbers are the first trade in Boston to make MLK Day a full holiday. “I think that speaks to the leadership of the PCA and Local 12. It’s a great thing for our industry.”

The contractors proposed increasing the number of miles for which they must compensate plumbers commuting to job sites from 50 to 75. “It was a reasonable ask,” says Fandel, demonstrating another instance of compromise at the negotiations. Among other items included in the agreement were some language changes. For example, to reflect changing attitudes and encourage diversity, “journeyman” will be updated to the gender-neutral term, “journeyperson.”

Both labor and management take the “collective” in collective bargaining to heart. Marani says that it was vitally important to him that the negotiators representing management spoke with one voice for the contractors. To that end, he and Ryan sought and welcomed input from all signatory shops, received a lot of good feedback, and was able to advocate on behalf of contractors of all sizes for a variety of issues.

To make the necessary concessions and move the process forward, both Marani and Fandel say that they tried to consider each other’s perspectives. They also tried to consider the state of the construction industry and project where it might be heading, which is never an exact science. The Boston area has been on a remarkable, long-term tear since 2009. But the industry historically endures both boom and bust cycles. The future may be vague, but the agreement that they hammered out provides continuity and certainty for both sides as they face whatever lies ahead.

During the negotiations, the two groups looked even farther into the future and discussed issues that may not be of concern for another 20 or 30 years. Fandel says that even though it’s difficult to know what the state of the industry will be then, it’s important to start thinking and talking about upcoming concerns for the collective bargaining agreement now.

In the end, both sides considered the bargaining process and the agreement to be successful. “You want the person you’re negotiating with to be of good word,” says Marani. “Tim proved that he was an honest and forthright guy. We tried to be the same way.”

Likewise, Fandel believes that the successful negotiations came down to mutual trust. “That’s why it works so well,” he says. “It’s a covenant between us.”

Helping vets get the services they need

After serving their country as members of the military, many veterans return home and seek careers in the building trades, including plumbing. Quite a few Local 12 members are veterans.

Sometimes, it can be difficult for them to make the transition to civilian life. Vets may not be aware of services that are available to them or know how to access them. That’s where Mike Degeis comes in.

An employment and outreach specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Degeis has been busy connecting with Local 12 members and other construction workers. Based in Bedford at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, he began making the connections about two years ago as part of the VA’s Supported Employment Engage and Keep (SEEK) program. In that time, he has helped about 150 veterans, approximately half of which are in the building trades–including around 35 Local 12 members. One of them is Shawn Ingraham.

“As a veteran you can feel isolated when you come home,” says Ingraham, a fourth-generation Local 12 member. “You realize it’s not what you thought it would be.” A Marine Corps vet like Degeis, he says that the VA rep has been instrumental in providing support and acting as a liaison with the agency.

“Mike put together a group for Local 12 veterans,” Ingraham explains. “It’s been very therapeutic for a lot of us.” Less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population are active-duty military personnel, and a small percentage of those see combat. Ingraham was deployed to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. “We’re part of that fraternity. We need the community, and Mike’s been great at creating it for us,” he adds.

Mike Degeis, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Massachusetts
Mike Degeis, an employment and outreach specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans AffairsU.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and his son, Qunicy.

When the COVID pandemic hit, the group temporarily stopped its regular meetings. But Ingraham says that Degeis continued to keep in contact with him. “It’s kind of like a buddy check. It goes a long way.”

Degeis says that the VA has long had an education program that helps pave the way for veterans to attend college. But veterans who went directly to work sometimes fell through the agency’s cracks. The relatively new SEEK program is a way to help ensure that vets get the care and resources they need to help them remain healthy and employed. Beyond the support group, Degeis works individually with vets to assist them as necessary.

As Degeis explains, it’s important that they continue to have a mission. If vets encounter some challenges in their lives, it may affect their ability to hold onto a job. That could lead to a spiraling cascade in which they not only lose their job but can no longer afford housing.

“They held themselves in high regard at one point of their lives when they were protecting the USA,” says Degeis. “Now they’re a homeless vet without a job.” Before it gets to that point, he is there to support both the vet and the employer. The agency will do whatever it takes to meet the veteran’s needs and to keep him or her on the job. That might mean mental health services through the VA, or it might mean making arrangements with other medical providers or agencies.

Sometimes, more than jobs and housing are at stake. The SEEK program also helps address the high suicide rates among veterans. “We can’t wait for veterans to be in crisis mode,” Degeis says. “We want to be proactive.”

The agency will also help veterans with less urgent and more practical matters. It might be educational benefits or a VA-backed home loan, for example. Ingraham says that when he went from the Marine Corps into the Reserves, some of his paperwork got mixed up. He discovered the problem when he tried to set up vocational rehab services. Rather than attempting to wade through the bureaucracy, he turned to Degeis who was able to intervene and sort everything out.

“We have a lot of members who are appreciative of the help Mike provides,” says Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent. He has been working with Degeis to help spread the word about the SEEK program. The pair have visited several job sites to make introductions, and Keady has set the VA rep up with general contractors so he could meet with more veterans in the field.

Keady notes that veterans are highly valued in the trades. “They’re generally more mature. They know where they are going in life.” Because of their military experience, vets work well as part of a team–a desirable trait for the kinds of large-scale projects on which Local 12 members often work. “They are natural leaders,” Keady adds. The business agent praises Degeis and the SEEK program, saying that it has been very effective.

Degeis hopes to replicate the success he has had with Local 12 and other building trades and expand the program to other employers. He’d also like to use the example he has set in the Boston area and take the SEEK program national. “We’d like to show other VAs how to do the same thing with their union partners.”

Jenna LeClerc, Local 12 plumbing apprentice Boston

Jenna starts her career with Local 12

Their journey to Local 12

Periodically in The Pipeline we profile Local 12 apprentices to discover the path that led them into the trade and the union. Who and/or what inspired them? Why did they decide to choose plumbing as a career? Why did they want to join Local 12? This issue we showcase two members at either end of their apprentice experience: Jenna LeClerc recently graduated high school and is a first-year apprentice, while Brendan Willett is in his fifth year and will be working towards his journeyman license.

“It’s not so unusual for women to go into the trade now,” says Jenna LeClerc, a first-year apprentice who joined Local 12 in September. Thanks to many pioneers who came before her and changing attitudes in the industry and society, young women such as LeClerc feel empowered to pursue plumbing.

Her dad is a carpenter, and LeClerc says that she was always interested in his projects around the house. She assisted him sometimes and remembers realizing at a young age that she wanted to do work like her father. A good student, LeClerc found that she was more of a tactile learner. “I understood more and caught on faster when I worked with my hands,” she says. “I really like accomplishing something and having something tangible to show for my efforts at the end.”

For high school, she followed her older sister and attended Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School. While there, LeClerc studied many topics, including culinary arts and dental assisting. “I wasn’t necessarily looking at plumbing,” she notes. “But I really enjoyed the class and found the trade intriguing. It turned out to be my favorite. I wanted to learn more.”

Having found her niche, LeClerc ran with it. Taking advantage of Essex Tech’s work-study program, she spent the last two years of high school working in the field with a plumbing company based out of Gloucester. The young student quickly found herself putting in water heaters, fixing leaks, installing sinks, and doing other residential service work. She also got to work on complete house remodels as well as some commercial construction jobs, which gave her a taste of larger projects.

It may be more common for women to enter the trade now, but some people are still surprised by the notion–especially when they see a young female show up at their house to help install a vanity. “Some thought I must have been the daughter of the boss,” LeClerc says, recalling the reactions she got when she was 16 years old and started working with the plumbing company. “They were shocked that I was a student and so young.”  

LeClerc says that she didn’t know much about unions in general, but one of her Essex Tech teachers told her about Local 12 and encouraged her to apply. She was accepted and, after graduating high school in June, the 18-year-old became a member of the union.

Since joining, LeClerc has been working for American Plumbing and Heating. Among the projects she has worked on are the 41-story One Post Office Square office tower in Boston, the multi-use, seven-story building at 100 Hood Park Drive in Charlestown, and the renovation of hospital patient rooms at CHA Somerville Campus. LeClerc says she is enjoying the work, especially the pace at which she and the other plumbers have been working.

As for Local 12’s training center, she says it is obvious that the instructors really like what they are doing and that they are there to help the apprentices. “They want us to succeed,” LeClerc adds.

When she made the decision to become a union plumber, her family and friends were all excited, supportive, and happy for her. “Even though my dad is a carpenter, he is thrilled that I am pursuing plumbing. He told me it was something he wanted to do.” LeClerc says. “Now, we are a well-rounded family with him doing carpentry and me doing plumbing.”