August 2011

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Member Promotes Activism in Cyberspace

For budding journeymen powering through their apprenticeships, it can be a jungle out there.

Rateeluck "Tarn" Puvapirom-quan knows this in a more literal sense. A daunting project last year found the Washington, D.C., Local 26 fourth-year apprentice in a simulated rainforest at the National Zoo in the heart of the city. Working with her team on the vast exhibit, she shared space with curious monkeys who frequently scurried around equipment and colorful birds that both screeched and sang. In the background, razor-toothed piranhas swam forebodingly in tanks and boa constrictors slithered among enclosed foliage.

"At one point, I had to extend my 16-foot ladder into the flood pool [an area that replicates monsoon activity in a rainforest]," recalled Puvapiromquan, who earned her journeyman status in June. "I had waders on, but water was leaking into my socks. I had my tools wrapped around my chest and a safety harness on. It was one of those early experiences that you never forget."

Puvapiromquan knows that "every electrician has eye-opening stories." That's why the skilled worker and practiced writer devoted time and creativity to chronicling her journey through the apprenticeship on a special blog established by instructors at the D.C. Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee. The goal of the project, which features blog updates from seven Local 26 members at different levels of their IBEW training, was primarily geared toward attracting new applicants to the program.

But it has also served as a potent platform for Puvapiromquan to expound on bigger ideas of solidarity, discuss challenges and opportunities for women and minorities in the trade and offer inspiration and advice to apprentices newly embarking on their union experience.

Since May 2009, Puvapiromquan has posted updates on everything from the importance of being active at union meetings, anxieties before a crucial exam and the sense of pride from accomplishing a tricky project.

In a June post about her cohort's matriculation, she writes, "Five years is indeed a long time, but MAN! The satisfaction of finishing is like nothing else. When I bump into fellow apprentices who will be walking across that stage with me on Saturday, there's a little glimmer in our eyes that communicates it all.

"These days at work," she continues, "I'm still learning: that I must embrace my codebook to size things right the first time; how to balance the energy levels of my crew … motivate when necessary, antagonize for fun, have teaching moments when we can … Yes, we've come a long way!"

Puvapiromquan's personal biography reflects the changing image of the nation, as unions become increasingly more diverse and representative of women and members of different ethnicities. She immigrated from Thailand with her parents when she was seven months old. Puvapiromquan's father worked in the building trades and her mother joined the army and also spent time as an entrepreneur—but their daughter's activism in the IBEW was the first inkling of unionism in the family.

"My dad was very happy about my decision to become an electrician," Puvapiromquan said. "He's told me that he wishes he had known about the union 30 years ago. We would have been more financially stable and my upbringing might have been better for it. Part of being an immigrant is you've got to have survivor mentality. I've seen some pretty tough things and seen my parents survive."

With union membership come solid opportunities for professional development and activism around issues that resonate with Tarn personally and politically. She was her local's delegate to the 2010 IBEW Women's Conference in D.C. and blogged about the solidarity she experienced. "The common underlying values of workers' rights, and the massive body of desire to uplift our union as a whole was positively overwhelming in its own right," she wrote last August.

Since then, Puvapiromquan has teamed up with fellow Local 26 members like instructor and mentor Kevin Burton for a flurry of activity within the local and the broader union. Months after the Women's Conference, she blogged about her participation in the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus ("There is a cohesion that exists through a tapestry of wisdom and skills") and announced the formation of ARC-DC, short for Apprentices Reaching our Community. The initiative seeks to tap the skills, knowledge and curiosity of the local's newer members to further empower apprentices to be of service both within and beyond the local.

Puvapiromquan also spoke as a panelist at the Metro D.C. Asian Pacific American Workers' Rights Hearing in May, where she told dozens of attendees how unions can benefit minority employees in nail salons, restaurants and other workplaces.

In June, she landed a position as a part time instructor at the JATC, where she now helps new members navigate the terrain as they begin their careers.

"Tarn is eager to share what she's learned so far with people coming in," said JATC Assistant Director Ralph Neidert. He credits the blog initiative for helping recruit new talent and gird the local's reputation as boasting the work force of choice. "When we started this project three years ago, we wanted to allow someone thinking about going into this industry to get an 'inside' feel," he said.

The effort is succeeding. During the JATC's most recent interview period, an applicant who took the entrance exams told the board that his interest was piqued by the posts. "He knew Tarn and the other writers by name and said that he follows them online," Neidert said.

When she's not teaching or involved with her myriad activist efforts, Puvapiromquan will continue her blog updates. She said that her experience on tough assignments—like the National Zoo project—helps foster a sense of optimism that is integral to success in the trade. Visit her blog at

When Washington Local 26 journeyman wireman Rateeluck "Tarn" Puvapiromquan isn't teaching at the area JATC, she blogs about her IBEW experiences.