The second subject of Common Ground's oral history series, "Still Working," is International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Local 939 member Victor Parkinson. Like our first interviewee, Paul MacDonald, Victor lost his parents early and bounced around throughout his childhood; like Paul, Victor has found stability and success in the labor movement.
Victor: I was born in Boston. My grandmother took care of me. When I was in third grade we moved from Boston to Mobile, Alabama. When I was down there my grandmother passed away, so then I had to come back up here. I lived in upstate New York, Kingston, for about four years, starting in fifth grade.
My mother passed away when I was living in New York, in '99. December 6, '99. I was 11. My father passed away in 2007.
After New York, I moved to Providence to live with my aunt. I went to Nathan Bishop Middle School, then to Hope High School. I was at Hope not even the full freshman year, then I transferred to Feinstein. I heard about the project-based system they had at Feinstein. I thought that was more for me.
It was a pretty good fit, but my living situation wasn't stable. I got into an argument with one of my cousins, and my aunt kicked me out. Then I had to go from group home to group home. Just bouncing around all over the place. Then I found a foster family. A guy named Morris Johnson. He was at the group home. He was like "This is not a place for you. You shouldn't be here." So he and his family adopted me. I was in 10th grade.
After I went to the foster home, the DCYF called and said that I was eligible for my own apartment, so I got my own apartment up the street from Feinstein. I was a junior then, so I was 16, 17.
T: How did that work out?
V: Not too good. I was young; I loved basketball; I was popular; so I had a lot of students over at my house. It turned into the hangout spot. You give a sixteen year old his own apartment...
T: You were living by yourself?
V: Yeah. It was good though, I learned how to take care of responsibilities. Pay bills, buying food, stuff like that.
T: Tell me about your relationship with (Feinstein guidance counselor and basketball coach) David Tedeschi.
Dave Tedeschi -- He was a big influence on me. We always clashed. I was a little... a lot hard headed back then. He was extra tough on me because he saw the potential. He saw what I really could do if I put forth the effort. I was just one of those kids that never put my all into it.
When I was going to Hope and other schools, if you were a good athlete, you could not go to practice, not go to school, especially at Hope, you could just go right in. The coaches would just let it fly by, but Dave just showed me a different way. You're not doing your school work, you're not acting appropriately in class, you're not going to play (basketball). You're going to be on the bench, matter of fact, you're not going to travel with the team if you do this again. I just kept doing it.
Then when I got my own apartment, I was just like "Forget school," basically. He was one of the ones that had to make a tough decision, with me not being able to come back to Feinstein. That situation definitely opened up my eyes too.
T: So you were essentially kicked out of Feinstein. Do you think that was good for you in a sense?
V: Yes. Definitely. Especially because that's all I thought about when I thought about leaving Job Corps. I thought, "I didn't finish high school, so if I leave here now..." I did think about that for years and years. It helped me later on down the line.
I moved back out to Boston when I was 18. It was the worst move I could have made. I kind of gave up on myself at that point, as far as school and things like that. So I came up here, I was at my uncle's house, and it was like, nobody cares about going to school, nobody's going to tell you what to do. I was young, I just thought, "Well, I'll stay here."
When I was going on 20, I said "This is not for me anymore. I want to go to Job Corps and get as far away from here as I can." So I applied for Job Corps and was accepted for the Bangor, Maine program.
T: What is Job Corps?
You can pick up a trade there. I think it is a government program. It has been for years a place to go get your GED. It was nice. They had dorms. It was like a college campus. I went out there, I took up business, I didn't like it, so then I went to construction, and that's when I really found my passion for working with my hands. Got my GED. It usually takes six months, it took me four and then I stayed on two months as staff in the dorms. Came back here to Boston.
I got a job at Home Depot and a side job doing construction. I didn't like Home Depot, but it was something. I had a friend of the family who had his own construction company up in Revere, Mass., so I got on his crew, just doing labor, demolition. I wasn't doing too much, just basic stuff.
I did that for years, then I quit Home Depot and started working at Brookstone and ABCD (Action for Boston Community Development), for little kids. ABCD is like a summer camp for kids from the projects. I was in Charlestown. Basically being a big brother to little kids, taking them out on field trips. I always loved kids, especially kids that I can relate to, as far as struggling, growing up a certain way. I definitely was into that.
T: Do you think the kids appreciate that?
V: Oh yeah. They had an awards ceremony, and I basically won all of them (laughs). That was 2010.
It was the end of summer, one of my uncles heard that there was an overpass job that was paying $15 an hour. He said, "I can get you on the crew for big money." It was under the table. I didn't know anything about unions. I was working on the underpass and I noticed this car there every single day for about two hours, just watching, taking pictures. I thought, maybe it is a newspaper or something.
After two weeks a BA (Business Agent), a good friend of mine now, Tony Hernandez, a Cuban, a great guy, comes up to me. I'm not going to say all the swears he was saying, but he was basically like "I like the way you work. I've been watching you for a long time." He wanted to get information about the contractor and the foreman and the boss.
Me not knowing, I'm like "Yeah, I'm making $15 an hour! It is a good job, I like doing it." He said "Yeah, I could tell. Here, take my card, give me a call, give me your number." So he called the next week to come into his office. He said, "I need you to write a statement about fifteen dollars an hour..." I was like "I don't know about this..." He said, "No, it is not supposed to happen. All the money he owes you..." I said "I don't want to start anything..." The boss was kind of a cool guy. I basically said, "Yeah, ok, all I'm putting is that I'm making $15 an hour, that's it."
Tony went, did something, and the contractors had to pay us the difference of what they were supposed to be paying us, union rate. They were supposed to pay for training and everything like that. They got in big trouble, and I got into the union -- the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, DC 35, Local 939.
The union put me right through school. It is a three year program. I liked it. My first year I loved it, I learned everything I didn't know about things like how to wrap hoses, tie knots for pulling, lifting, whatever. As I went on after my first year, when I got into the field I noticed, OK, I know how to this, but what about everything else that these guys are asking me to do? It was kind of slow to me because I felt like they teach you the basics. It is a lot of paperwork and testing, too.
I finished in February 2013, got my diploma for that. I was happy to be done. The training was all the way in New Hampshire, an hour and 45 minutes away. They don't care about the snow, they want you to come. It was a mess. There is no if and buts about it. You miss more than two days, you gotta start over, they don't care.
T: Why did you think it was worth the trouble?
V: Good question. Well, I think at that time, especially in my first year, I had a son, so I was seeing the bigger picture, needing to take care of my family and live comfortably. Not living from check to check. That was big. That made it all worth it.
Also, I got to know a lot of good people in the union. It is brotherly, family. Me not really feeling that through my years coming up, I liked it. That's what made it all worth it.
T: Have you been working pretty steadily since then?
V: Last year was a tough year, but before that, yeah.
T: What have you been doing specifically?
V: Different bridges everywhere. The Longfellow Bridge, a nice historic bridge I did, spent a year on, a popular bridge. I did the UMass Lowell bridge for the students. That was a big project.
T: How do you feel about working up high?
V: At first, hearing about it, a bridge, what? Hanging off a bridge, walking a beam, shimmying a beam? But then, when you are an apprentice, they definitely don't want you to look down, to see, "Oh, my god." They'll have the riggers come in and put the containment up before you get it. You get used to it. There was this one time I worked on the worst bridge I've worked on, the Long Island Bridge. There were beams falling, there was no containment. This was my first bridge. It was crazy. That was very frightening. As far as heights, I'm pretty good up there.
T: What's a workday like?
V: Start at 6:00. It depends on what we're doing. If it is the first day, we're rigging, we're putting up containment from 6:00 until the end of the day, a ten hour day. Putting up containment. That'll take about a week, two weeks depending on the job and if the guys want to milk it or not. Then we blast. We do lead removal first. We sand blast from a hose with 130, 140 PSI. That'd probably take about a month to do a section. It just depends on what company you're working for and what bridge you're working on. A typical bridge you'll have to blast one section, then another section. Maybe half of the bridge, then they'll send in a paint crew to try to paint up to where the blasters leave off.
I blast. All day. 10 hour days? If I'm lucky.
On hot days, we'll work 12 hour days.
The starting rate when I started was $24/hour. Our union in Boston is the highest paid in the union except for New York.
T: Have you gotten hurt?
V: No, well yeah. I got a hernia. I just had surgery in December for that. Little dings here and there.
T: Any serious accidents around you?
V: Oh yeah. On the Longfellow two years back, there was a steel cutter, and he was over on a beam cutting steel, and on the top they were pulling out blocks of cement to repair them. They were just doing everything at once on that bridge. One of the blocks fell and hit the guy. I don't even know what happened to him and two other guys. It was a steel cutter, a laborer and somebody else that got seriously injured. My buddy just fell off a bridge and got hurt bad in New Orleans. They sent him down there.
T: Do you like being able to see where you worked?
V: Definitely. My fiancee will bring my kids, sometimes she'll come at lunch and be like "Look off the bridge, wave!" My kids will be like "Daddy!" Like I'm a superhero or something.