Things started looking up six months ago when Centeno started as an apprentice with the ironworkers, at the encouragement of some relatives who belong to the union. The apprentice program lasts four years and involves both on-the-job training and classwork. The starting wage is $22, with regular raises and, after a few weeks on the job, full benefits. When training is over, she’ll get her journeyman’s card and can expect to make more than $40 an hour.
Things have been looking up for many Fresno ironworkers recently. When the recession hit in 2008, jobs around here started drying up. The union’s membership dwindled for about five years before a reprieve came in 2013 in the form of solar energy. “Solar saved our bacon,” one veteran ironworker told me.
The union got involved in solar projects that had started popping up across the valley, fueled by federal and state tax incentives and California’s climate policies. Not long after solar took off, workers broke ground on the high-speed rail line, which is funded in part by revenue from California’s carbon cap-and-trade program and will run from San Francisco to Los Angeles and beyond. Local 155 has signed on to some 45 solar projects in the past few years, ranging from the 200-megawatt Wright Solar Park in Merced County to the 23-megawatt Cottonwood Solar project in Kings County. The union is currently training 260 apprentices — 200 more than usual.
The apprenticeship is a good deal, Centeno says, but it’s demanding, especially for a single parent. She’s had to spend nights away from her kids when she worked on far-off locations. Sometimes, she said, she comes home from work so stiff that she walks like a penguin. Sexism is common, she told me, so in addition to learning to weld and walk on beams, she had to learn to shut it down with swagger. “You show up at the site, and they say, ‘Oh, you’re a girl.’” Her response: “No, I’m an ironworker.”
For the first time in her life though, Centeno sees a path to a good life. And she doesn’t have to worry about money. “This shirt is new,” she said, pinching the fabric of a black hoodie. “This necklace is new.” She lifts its charm — “love” is spelled out in crystals. She points to her two sons, aged three and four, both with matching buzz cuts, brown overalls and high-tops. “My boys are wearing Carhartts. They’re wearing Jordans. I never had any of this before. It changed my life.”
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