Artist Setare Arashloo, left, New York Local 3 member Paul Vance, labor academic Barrie Cline and Local 3 member Jaime Lopez discuss their art exhibit based on member interviews.  

New York Local 3 member Harry Garcia remembers growing up in Electchester, a cooperative housing district in Queens established by the local decades ago. 

“I’m a very proud, brown-skinned Puerto Rican man raised in a beautiful community and the community comes from an idea that somebody had a long time ago that working people deserve a better way,” Garcia said. “I’m very proud when I tell people I come from a union and my father was in a union and … I will die knowing the greatness of that.”

New York Local 3 member Jaime Lopez interviews fellow member Bill Riley for his project, “Illuminating History,” funded by the American Folklife Center, part of the Library of Congress.

Maintenance electrician Bill Riley Sr. said it wasn’t standard practice, but he remembers he and his fellow splicers sharing work equally to ensure everyone had access to the higher paying night shifts.

“We didn’t want animosity,” Riley said. “We have a camaraderie.”

Garcia and Riley are among those who shared their memories of life as a Local 3 member with fellow brother Jaime Lopez for a project funded by the American Folklife Center, part of the Library of Congress.

“The stories of electricians, their lives and their contributions, often go unnoticed,” said Lopez, an inside wireman. “Now we can share those stories, and what it means to be a Local 3 member, so the world can see what they’re missing.”

Lopez, along with Local 3 member Paul Vance and faculty at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center, were awarded the Archie Green fellowship, which funds research projects that document the occupational culture of everyday people in the contemporary U.S.  

The team worked to conduct audio interviews with 20 members of the 30,000-member local. Interviewees were chosen to reflect members in different parts of their career as well as the diversity of the local.

Previous fellowship recipients include studies of foreign-born workers in Iowa’s meatpacking industry and a Washington State Labor Council-supported project on the lives of working Washingtonians. 

“You hear about CEOs and other executives all the time. Our experiences are just as important, but they’re left out of the conversation,” said Local 3 Business Manager Chris Erikson. “This project can change that.”

A lot of the questions were open-ended, asking what it means to be in a union, what their first day was like and what inspires them – and whether they see anything artistic in their work.

“That was my favorite question,” Lopez said of the inquiry on artistry. “One person talked about how journeymen have to imagine where everything will go and how they’ll install it before they begin, which is its own creative process.”

Preserving the Union

Lopez and Vance are graduates of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies program, a condition of Local 3’s apprenticeship which requires that all apprentices get an associate degree in labor studies. The center is part of the State University of New York Empire State College, an institution focused on nontraditional teaching and learning.

It was through Lopez’s studies, which included a Local 3-funded bachelor’s degree, that he met his fellowship partners, artist Setare Arashloo and Barrie Cline, who have since formed a collective called the Workers Art Coalition.

The project, titled “Illuminating History,” was submitted to the Library of Congress in July and will be available online by October. Lopez and his team also plan to repurpose their material, possibly turning the interviews into a large-scale art project.

“Going through this process makes you think a lot about what we contribute as a workforce and about the preservation of the union,” said interviewee and inside wiremen Kenneth Cohen. “We need to continue to share our stories.”

In April, the group exhibited the interviews in an art show in a studio in Brooklyn. Visitors were invited to sit on a bench constructed partially from conduit while listening to interview clips and viewing images from an electrician’s work day.

“Having never given much thought to electricians’ work, I found myself fascinated and wanting to hear more,” wrote Jillian Steinhauer in her review for art publication Hyperallergic. “All it took was someone to remind me that their stories were worthwhile.”

It’s that interest, and sense of solidarity, that Lopez and his team hope to foster, to show that each working person’s story is both unique and universal.

“I am a fourth-generation member of Local 3. My sons are fifth-generation and my granddaughter may well be the sixth. The union is my life, just as it as for thousands of Local 3 families,” Erikson said. “It’s given us countless opportunities to realize our full potential and add to the mosaic of our collective success story and for that we are truly blessed. I am thrilled we have an opportunity to share it and encourage other locals to do the same.” 

The Illuminating History project is a digital audio archive deposited into the Library of Congress and made possible by the Archie Green Fellowship.