By Ivan Flores
It happens every year. Hundreds of plumbers, welders and pipefitters from across the United States and Canada descend on Ann Arbor. This year, they came from as far away as Ireland and Australia. The United Association of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders, and Service Techs, also known as the UA, was founded in 1889. The union has been holding a week-long convention at Washtenaw Community College since 1990. The 2016 instructor training program was held from the 13th through the 19th of August. The UA uses WCC’s facilities to educate its instructors with the objective of returning them to their local charters in a position to provide quality training for their members. However, the event also benefits the local community. It has an estimated six million dollar impact on Ann Arbor’s economy. The UA also raises money for veterans during its annual Rock Around the Block party on Main Street.
Kristy Poore has been responsible for welcoming the UA to Ann Arbor for the past five years. She is the national sales executive for the Ann Arbor Area Conventions and Visitors Bureau (AAACB).
“They have a partnership with WCC (and) with the Great Lakes Regional Training Center,” said Poore. “They not only do the instructor training program every year in August, but they also do year-round training at the GLRTC.”
Harold Harrington was among the participants. He is the business manager and director of the training committee for the UA Local 370, in Flint, Michigan. The instruction provided at the conference is invaluable to his chapter. According to Harrington, the UA Local 370 has more members now than it did 10 years ago, despite the population decline in Flint. Once largely dependent on the auto industry, the plumbers and pipefitters of Flint now work in various industrial settings, as well domestic ones.
The Flint water crisis also created a demand for the UA worker’s skills. Harrington stated that affected infrastructure could be replaced in a matter of months if the funds were made available. He also stressed that the problem of led pipes is not unique to Flint. He said that aging water pipes will need to be replaced in cities across the country.
According to Poore, WCC and the UA signed a 15 year contract about three years ago, which will ensure that the next generation of plumbers and pipefitters are ready for the challenge.
Many of those plumbers and pipefitters are veterans. The UA started the Veterans in Pipefitting program, which provides free training to active-duty servicemembers. Once discharged, the veterans have job security in well-paid profession.
Kristy Poore was responsible for organizing another important link between the UA and veterans: the Rock Around the Block party. For the past five years, the UA has raised money through a 5k run and the Pub Crawl. This year they also celebrated the third annual Big Flush Toilet Race. The money raised from these events benefits the Semper Fi fund. The proceeds from last year’s events in Ann Arbor totaled $65 thousand. According to a press release, the nonprofit has provided about $113 million in grants since 2004 to injured members of the U.S. military.
The party was also a chance for the convention attendees to socialize and unwind after their first day of classes. The Milwaukee Tool Shed Band provided entertainment to the patrons of various Main Street restaurants. Not far from the stage, several chapters faced off in the Big Flush Toilet Race. This year’s winners were from Harrington’s local: 370 Flint.
Spencer Goyette was on the winning team. He has been in the UA for five years. Speaking about his trade and the Flint water crisis, he said,
“We have the skills no one else has. We’re trying our best, especially out of Local UA 370, to come out and do what’s best for our community. We live there, we breathe there. It’s our hometown. Were doing a lot of work and we’re proud to do it all. No matter what, Flint may have a bad rap, but Flint fights harder and Flint will never come off the map. We’ll always be here and we’ll always be strong.”