The Journey to Joining and Retiring Union
Dan Helmer, a Haida tribal member and retired Union Carpenter, tells us how he got into carpentry and his joy of training carpenters on how to work with the safety and craftsmanship of union professionals.
Helmer started his 40+ year career as a carpenter for water and sewer mains, spent some time in Vancouver and northern Canada, then decided to move south to Washington to join the Carpenters Union. He has worked for over 30 years in all different types of roles in construction before retiring on the rule of 80 and out.
When Helmer was finishing high school, his dad suggested joining the union long before he moved from the Haida Gwaii, also known as Queen Charlotte Islands, to Washington state, but there were not many union jobs available at the time. Most of the non-union work he found required him to own his tools and truck, so when a spot opened up for an apprenticeship with the union in Washington, he took it.
What is ’80 and out’?
Many pension plans have this, when a member’s years of service in the Union plus their age equals 80, they can retire with full pension.
With only so many spots available for apprentices, Helmer could not be picky with where he landed. He ended up working for Acoustical Ceilings, which was different from working with wood, but he grew to like it.
Throughout the years, Helmer has seen a lot of change as restructures and merging of locals shaped what we know as our union today. “At the time it was local 1982, then 1144, and now 41,” said Helmer.
When asked how he felt about current events happening across the United States, Helmer said, “I try to tell the people I worked with before I retired—you have no idea how it was out here.”
He went on to explain how there were 1,500 members in his local with only five Native Americans. “I was told I had a bad attitude because I didn’t take the racist jokes. I never really took it, I just told them what I thought,” said Helmer. “Nowadays it’s a different climate–there are more minorities on the job site.”
Helmer reminds everyone to speak up, though. “You need to let somebody know–you don’t have to fight that battle by yourself.”
It’s no wonder in speaking to Helmer that he’s mentored and trained a lot of people. He radiates advice and talks of lessons he’s learned.
“For me, the most rewarding thing was teaching. I often learned while teaching others. I enjoyed it and there are people who have been taught by me who still thank me for what they learned,” Helmer said.
Helmer went on to tell us about a mentee of his who reached out to thank him for never settling for “shoddy” work. He went on to explain, keeping quality up meant keeping jobs and work coming. It also meant safety was a priority.
“I’m pretty happy we have the safety we do. I saw the change–some of the jobs went from really dirty to much safer,” said Helmer. When he first started with the union, “[He] used to hate wearing a hard hat and putting on a vest and mask. But then, [he] finally caught on that this was way better than non-union. It’s better that they care.”
“I went from being the guy who didn’t want to wear it to the guy who was policing the PPE. I didn’t yell at them, but I explained to them why it was important,” Helmer said.
When asked if he had any final advice, Helmer said, “Construction is not for everyone–it’s tough, physical work. Very first thing: Decide if you like it or not. I loved what I did.”
Helmer has seen the union evolve over the last 30 years giving him “a great wage and life” and he is hopeful quality, training and benefits continue to get better.