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What role will unions play in race for NY21?

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QUEENSBURY — A visit from a congressional candidate gave members of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 773 union a chance to show off their new training center, highlighting the tension between what many see as the waning political prominence of labor unions and the growing need for the kind of skilled worker they can provide. But don’t count them out of the political process, consultants and advocates say.

Aaron G. Woolf, a Democrat running for the 21st Congressional District seat held by Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, gave a speech to supporters at the center last Monday. Rep. Owens is not seeking re-election.

Following the speech, Scott D. Martel, the union’s business manager, gave an impromptu tour of the center, which was completed last July and includes classroom and workshop space.

During the tour, Mr. Martel said that skilled workers earn $33 an hour, plus $22 an hour in benefits after they complete a five year apprenticeship, and yet there’s a “severe shortage” of these types of skilled workers in the country, he said.

“It all goes back to the high school years,” Mr. Martel said.

Students are not given enough exposure to the trades, according to Mr. Martel.

About 50 percent of the applicants he interviews have some college or military experience and are looking to transition into another field, Mr. Martel said.

Apprentices work while attending classes and training over a five year period. The classes are taught for three hours a night, three nights a week, from September to April, Mr. Martel said. They are paid approximately half of what a skilled journeyman makes, about $16.50 an hour, Mr. Martel said.

“When we’re done training an apprentice, we have about $40,000 invested,” Mr. Martel said. “And it’s at no cost to them, they’re getting paid while they work. They’re earning while they’re learning.”

Much of the political effectiveness of unions, despite their reported decline on the national stage in recent years, stems from the fact that they can quickly mobilize volunteers to man phone banks and walk door to door to get out the vote, according to Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, chairman of Uniondale-based Empire Government Strategies and a former state Assemblyman.

“A lot of it depends on the power of a particular union in the community,” Mr. Kremer said.

Unions can still be consequential in local races and even more powerful than any political group in an area, according to Mr. Kremer.

“One member could influence 50 people,” he said.

Former Republican Rep. John McHugh, now Secretary of the Army, was known for having good relationships with the unions in the district, particularly the trade unions, according to Gouverneur Mayor Ronald P. McDougall, president of the Central Trades and Labor Council and husband of one-time Republican congressional candidate Dierdre K. Scozzafava.

According to Mr. McDougall, there are 62 unions representing 23,900 members in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence Counties alone.

And while Mr. Martel said that his union has supported both Democrats and Republicans in the past, the union typically supports Democratic candidates because they understand the issues of the blue collar worker that unions have long represented.

According to Mr. McDougall, unions will play an important role in determining the winner of the race for the 21st Congressional District.

“We plan on being very active in this election but we haven’t made any endorsements yet,” he said.

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