For some ironworkers, wind energy brings renewed chance at American Dream
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DUNDALK, Md. -- Luke Buckingham gazed hungrily at the motorcycle belonging to one of his fellow apprentices at Ironworkers Local 16. A brand-new Suzuki GSX-R1000 with a cobalt finish, glittering against the broken sidewalk.
"Oh man," he said. "That thing's a beast. Someday, someday ... "
To Buckingham, a bearlike 25-year-old with buzzed blond hair, the bike was a symbol of the middle-class life he hoped to someday have -- the waterfront house, the boat, the monogrammed bedsheets he imagined himself sliding between. It was why he dragged his 6-foot, 260-pound frame out of bed before dawn to climb along iron beams and weld columns for $21.36 an hour, minus the 4 percent union tithe. Someday, he'd get the superintendent position; someday maybe be a foreman, "just being the top dog."
It was his third year as an apprentice. Twice a week, he and two dozen other apprentices drove to this cinder-block shop just east of the Baltimore city limits to learn drilling, welding, rebar and the values of a union man.
Outside the shop, the country seemed to be at war over how much longer their kind of work would be around. Manual jobs were being edged out by automation and overseas competition. President Donald Trump had vowed to bring them back, extolling the working class, which somehow had become shorthand for white Trump supporters.
Local 16 apprentices saw something different. Mostly white but also African-American, Hispanic and from other ethnic groups, they reflected the true makeup of America's working class in 2017, which was closing in on half minority. As a Jewish American, Buckingham didn't fit the Trumpian mold, either.
The apprentices had more pressing concerns than politics, dogged by questions their elders never had to face. Would there be enough work to make their four years of training worth it? Was there still room in the United States for a blue-collar worker to make a good life?
They weren't going to wait on Trump. Instead, they were taking their futures into their own hands. Baltimore wasn't booming like Washington or New York, but there was one bright spot: the possibility of a major wind energy project that would create local jobs and help them get closer to their middle-class dreams.
Soon, the apprentices would head to the Maryland Public Service Commission to push for the plan to be approved. And they were counting on men like Jimmy Gauvin, who heads their apprenticeship program, to guide them.
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Gauvin, 62, doesn't generally go in for sentimentality. But what had happened to Sparrows Point, he said, was "like a dagger in our heart."
He'd started working there in the 1980s, when the site buzzed with tens of thousands of workers. "You were always burning and welding, tearing something out, putting something in."
Back then, you'd see mill after mill after mill, each engaged in the steelmaking process. The tallest blast furnace pumped out smoke that was black, red or brown, depending on what was being made. Three times a day, the shift changes swallowed and disgorged thousands of men through the gates.
Local 16, a five-minute drive away, had 1,400 dues-paying members. But when Gauvin retired as a full-time ironworker in 2008, the Point was dying, and in 2012, it closed altogether.
"The steel industry shrank because the technology became out of date," said Thomas Kochan, co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research. "The old blast furnaces weren't replaced with new technology as fast as in China, Korea and India, and the U.S. industry became less competitive."
The union's meeting hall fell silent. To the apprentices, the Point became a landscape of gauzy nostalgia, a symbol of a time when ironworking promised a future.
Now, there were no promises. The system was top-heavy, with 300 active members paying for 600 retirees. They needed more apprentices, but the work was dangerous, and there was no guarantee of jobs.
Then, last year, the union's business agent heard about a proposal to build wind turbines off the Maryland shore.
The U.S. Energy Department has called for ramping up wind-powered electricity to 20 percent by 2030, and the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers has begun offering turbine training and certification. Bringing such a large project to Baltimore would be "a real cause for excitement," said Ahmer Qadeer, a Rutgers University researcher who works on energy and labor issues. "It represents a lot of work and ... a growing industry."
Gauvin didn't want to get too excited. Still, it sat like a coin in his pocket, something to run his thumb over. If the turbines were approved, it would mean that when he retired from running the program in a year or two, he'd be leaving his apprentices with the prospect of steady work.
That, to him, would be a big step toward making America great again.
But Ocean City homeowners worried the turbines would ruin their views. So Gauvin went from classroom to classroom with a message for his apprentices.
Go, he told them. Go to the hearings and speak in favor of the turbines. Their futures depended on it.
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Buckingham hadn't planned on being an ironworker. After high school, he started studying engineering at Frostburg State University before dropping out.
A local general contractor took him on, offering him a path to good money. He loved the job, but then his fiancee decided to move to Chicago, and he quit to join her. A week later, the engagement fell apart. "I came back to Baltimore and begged for my job back, but he said, 'No, you've got to learn your lesson.'"
He drifted for a couple of years, until a family friend suggested Local 16's apprenticeships. Gauvin let him take the entrance exam even though the program had started three months earlier.
For Buckingham, the union held a lot of the appeal of the fraternity he'd joined in college -- the structure, the brotherhood, even the rules. As he and his buddies lifted a 616-pound I-beam or held a magnetic drill steady, he absorbed lessons on why it was worth it to pay dues and how a union man's work was higher quality and ultimately more lucrative than that of his nonunion counterparts.
Now, living in a basement room he rents in his father's Canton home, Buckingham's decision to quit the contractor job still gnaws at him. He knows he can be rash -- he wasn't even sure whom he'd vote for in November until he stepped into the booth and picked Trump.
His father was outraged. But Buckingham liked that Trump was all about making money. That's what he wanted for himself.
Some of Buckingham's fellow apprentices razzed him. Trump was the worst kind of boss, they said, a rich man who hired nonunion workers, a racist.
The day after the election, Taaz Robinson, a fellow third-year, posted a picture on Buckingham's Facebook page of Trump as an infant being dandled by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Like Buckingham, Robinson, a square-jawed African-American man, had also made rash choices. After graduating from high school in Aberdeen, he turned down a college lacrosse scholarship, began dealing drugs and wound up in prison.
He was paroled in 2013, married and had a second and third child. Despite his record, Local 16 was willing to take him in. He felt, as he put it, "in a positive light for the first time in my life."
He and Buckingham had that gratitude in common, and though Robinson avoided talking politics at work, he could tease Buckingham. After he posted the Putin picture, Buckingham good-naturedly hit the "like" button.
Then in January, Local 16 received the news that it would be merging with Local 5 of Upper Marlboro, one of several mergers of ironworkers unions around the country. The Local 16 members felt blindsided. The union was part of their identity, like a tattoo. What kind of message did it send, that their union could no longer stand on its own?
Compared with this, national politics seemed distant. Ironworkers' fortunes rise and fall with the local construction economy, and for Baltimore workers, the more important vote was the one coming in the spring about the wind turbines.
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On an overcast Saturday in March, Buckingham walked into the cafeteria of Stephen Decatur Middle School in Berlin, near Ocean City. The drive from Baltimore had taken over two hours on his day off, but he wanted to stand with Gauvin and his brothers.
Gauvin stepped up to the microphone. He recounted his ironworking journey, which began in 1978. "I was able to provide for my family, put my children through college, pay for their weddings." Noting the apprentices in the room, he said, if the turbines were approved, "these gentlemen would have the opportunity the same as I did."
Some men from Local 16 spoke, along with environmental groups, business organizations and other unions supporting the project. Homeowners spoke, too, about views and electricity rates, which, at least initially, can rise after a switch to wind energy.
Back in Dundalk, Gauvin treated the group to dinner at Chili's. Buckingham ordered a cheeseburger and two Budweisers.
He had liked the way Gauvin had threaded his life story together with those of his apprentices. Watching him, he'd thought, "Jimmy's the man!"
Two months passed. On a Tuesday in late May, as the apprentices filed in, Gauvin summoned them to the shop's central room.
They jostled for space along a horizontal I-beam. Gauvin raised a hand to shush them.
"I don't know if you all heard about the vote a few days ago on our offshore windmills," he said.
The room grew quiet.
"It went our way."
The men erupted in cheers and thumbs-ups.
Two companies had been approved to construct 77 turbines off the Maryland shore, pending federal signoff. The Public Service Commission estimated the project would create nearly 9,700 jobs and spur more than $1.8 billion in in-state spending. The companies would be required to use local port facilities and invest in a steel fabrication plant. And they would have to fund nearly $40 million in port upgrades at the Point.
"So our little part in it, going down to testify, it worked," Gauvin said.
There was no telling how big this could be. It could spark a chain reaction, with buildings going up at the Point, turbines built and installed, windmill maintenance ongoing. However it fell out, he told them, "It's all man-hours for us."
Then he ordered them back to work.
It wasn't until later for Buckingham that the news began to sink in.
"It gives me job security, and it helps the guys that are coming in," he said. "The kids growing up in Dundalk and Edgemere and Sparrows Point, they're going to see that and they're going to go, 'Well, that's a job. Maybe I'll go do that.' "
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On a breezy afternoon, trucks pulled into the union hall parking lot, and apprentices climbed out. They smoked cigarettes, and a first-year sat on a car trunk and strummed a guitar, singing, "The Weight" as a briny scent wafted in from the Point.
Fifty feet above, Buckingham and another apprentice stood in a manlift painting the union hall's flagpole. As part of the merger, they would eventually move from this building. But for now, it was still their home.
Buckingham was recently prequalified for a home loan; now he needed to save for the down payment. He had gotten an offer to work for a nonunion company, but he had quickly declined.
"I'd be missing the union, the sense of belonging, the value, the relationships," he said.
The manlift lowered him to the ground. The sun was low and golden, and Buckingham's clothes were splattered with paint. He stubbed out a cigarette and dropped it into an empty water bottle. He looked up at the flagpole, white against the blue sky. Then he crushed the plastic bottle with his hands and headed into class.