In an age of automation and continued legislative efforts to stymie their rights, labor unions are down but not out.
As Haverhill battles a growing problem of gang violence, city leaders are enlisting the help of local unions to provide mentors and guidance to at-risk youth, to keep them on a path to the middle class instead of jail — or worse.
Mayor James Fiorentini said he has spoken to representatives from local laborers and carpenters unions about opportunities they may be willing to offer kids in the city who are involved with, or could potentially become involved with gangs, in the coming years.
"Just to see how we can get kids into jobs. We've had great discussions," Fiorentini said, he's also had talks with area nonprofits on how to reduce the influence of gangs on kids.
"The one thing I've gotten clearly ... is that kids in gangs are not employed," the mayor said.
Michael Gagliardi, business manager of Laborers Local 175, said he and other local trade unions have spoken with the city about showing young adults in high schools a way out of inner-city environments where gangs often fester.
"The talks have been good," said Gagliardi, whose union has more than 1,000 dues-paying members working in construction throughout the Merrimack Valley. "We want to show inner city youth that there are opportunities to earn a living and own a home, get a pension and take vacations away from violence and crime.
"For some of these kids, that's all they see," he added.
As the city's gang problem has worsened — the Acre neighborhood saw five gang-related shootings between July and September this year — Fiorentini has leaned heavily on the experiences of former gang members who have turned their lives around and are now living productive lives.
Estimates on how many gang members live in the city range from a low of 200 up to 375 gang members.
When asked how many people in his local union group are former gang members, Gagliardi said it is a difficult figure to quantify, but that the local draws a number of workers from urban centers like Lawrence and Haverhill.
"We're passionate about the cities where our workers live, and we want kids to know they haven't been forgotten by the cities where they live," said Gagliardi.
Union locals are coordinating with Fiorentini to meet with students at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School and Haverhill High School about joining their apprenticeship programs, Gagliardi added.
The apprenticeship program with Local 175 consists of 300 hours of classroom time learning the trade, followed by 4,000 hours of field work on a construction site.
After that, an apprentice becomes a journeyman, and is able to work as a paid construction worker, Gagliardi said.
While local unions employ workers from Haverhill, union workers already hold positions of influence in the city.
Dennis Everett, a Haverhill native and member of Insulators Local 6 out of Boston, is the co-founder of Power of Self-Education, Inc., a community organization in the Mount Washington neighborhood. He and his wife, Katrina Hobbs-Everett, a candidate for School Committee, founded the POSE group.e
"I'm encouraged by the drive of the city and it's important this issue is getting attention," Everett said of the city's fight with gangs.
Everett added that while he was able to escape the streets, some of his cohorts were not so lucky.
"When I couldn't compet in school and my home life was distracting me, I went to the streets," he said. "And a lot of the guys I ran with, it was for the same reason. But I wanted to be a homeowner and raise a family."
The positives of a union apprenticeship program, Everett said, is that it does not come with exorbitant loans. The hands-on nature of the apprenticeships is comfortable for students who may not do well in a formal classroom setting. Everett is in the third year of the local's four-year apprenticeship program.
While apprenticeship programs are open to only young people with a minimum of a GED, a driver's license and a mode of transportation, Everett said that these requirements can be impediments for many at-risk youth.
"For a lot of them, that's what they're trying to get," he said of why many young people take to the streets. "But before they get a car, they end up in jail."
In addition to his work with Local 6 and POSE — a community focused, education driven, faith-based non-profit that "seeks to educate individuals towards self-sustained social responsibility through education," according to it leders— Everett also founded a men's group, Goons2God, in 2013 in conjunction with the Rehoboth Lighthouse Full Gospel Church, where his wife's father, Bishop Franklin Hobbs, has presided for much of his 60 years as a minister.
The therapy group works to help men in the community cope with day-to-day stressors, and also provides practical services like job placement, creating a practical housing plan, building positive relationships, providing transportation for members to court dates, school meetings, and transitional assistance appointments, as well as medical and non-medical appointments.
In addition to Local 175, Gagliardi said that Carpenters Local 111 in Methuen has been engaged in talks with the city about helping kids join its apprenticeship programs.
According the website of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, the New England Carpenters Union offers a four-year apprenticeship program which includes classroom and workshop training for one week every three months, along with employment on job sites in between those weeks. The classroom work focuses on math courses such as geometry and helps apprentices become comfortable using industry technology and products.
Prior to earning journeyman status, apprentices earn wages and benefits, typically starting around 50 percent or higher of the journey worker pay scale.