Shag, textured Berber, area and wall-to-wall: Vincent Mazzella knows carpet. After graduating from high school in Trenton in the late 1970s, Vincent worked for several years installing carpeting for a local small business owner. "He taught me a strong work ethic and what it's like to do an honest day's work," explains Vincent, who is now 43.
But after about 10 years, Vincent's carpeting career hit a snag when he realized he had advanced just about as far as he possibly could in the rug business. What next? He followed in the footsteps of his friends. "Most of the guys I grew up with are in the building trades," explains Vincent. "I used to hang out and talk with these guys. When I heard about the benefits, the type of work you could do and the pension plan, I went down to what was then Local 369 in Trenton." Soon enough, Vincent was carrying his union card as a craft laborer. He's been a journeyman in the trade for the past seven years.
Vincent recently finished building a dormitory at Princeton University, a construction job he worked on for 18 months. "The company I worked for handled all aspects of the brick and the block," explains Vincent. "The five stairwells were all slate and granite. It can be a tough way to make a living, but working with this company, building the scaffold, taking the scaffold down, I really enjoyed it. You can always learn from guys who have been out there longer than you. It's really amazing to watch the masons cut."
As craft laborers and other building trades professionals get older, their unions want to make sure they can still contribute their time and energy to the job, even if they are not able to tackle the ongoing physical labor as effectively. That is why unions like Vincent's, are always offering continuing education courses to enable workers to train in new areas or move into more managerial roles.
Vincent's new buildings trade career of choice is as a union organizer, of which New Jersey has only 45. "As organizers, we're trying to build a base between the management and the workers," says Vincent. "We also educate workers as far as why they would want to join a union. We try to keep members involved."
In May 2004, Vincent's union sent him to a union-organizer course in Newark, which he attended with 32 men and women from around the country. The group practiced their new trade, speaking out in a Northern New Jersey community against a contractor who was not paying the prevailing wage to his workers. Vincent says he is "fired up" for his new career in the building trades. "Union members used to be more involved in the unions. Everybody went to the meetings. People looked out for each other. A lot of that has gone away," explains Vincent. "We're trying to change that attitude and to make people realize that if everybody doesn't work together there may not be a future."