Journeyman wireman and Local 159 activist Pablo Baxter, pictured with another RENEW volunteers at a Wisconsin food bank in April, took advantage of COVID-19 downtime to earn a labor studies certificate using the Union Plus free college benefit. Union members and their families can study for a wide variety of college degrees through the program.

Pablo Baxter knew nothing about unions five years ago when he looked into an apprenticeship with Madison, Wis., Local 159.

Despite a humble, working-class childhood, he said, “I didn’t really know that unions existed growing up.”

Nowadays, the new journeyman wireman can’t stop talking about them. 

“I’m all about getting the union buzz out there,” Baxter said. “I want to bring unions back into the discussions around the dinner table and water cooler.”

He’s better prepared for that mission after finishing a labor studies program paid for by the Union Plus free college benefit.

Available to union members and their families, the benefit covers tuition and other expenses for a wide array of associate and bachelor’s degrees, and certificate programs.

Pablo Baxter, who benefitted this year from the Union Plus free college program, on the job with Local 159 in Madison, Wis.

Baxter had an impressive resume already on top of his IBEW training: a bachelor’s degree in business administration; fellow in the New Leaders Council; chair of Local 159’s RENEW committee of young activists; co-chair of the regional AFL-CIO’s parallel committee; and a long list of other activism, volunteerism and continuing education.

Frittering time away simply isn’t in Baxter’s DNA, he said. So, he was determined to put his free hours to good use when COVID-19 slowed down construction in 2020.

“I’m always about self-improvement, and being efficient with my time,” he said. “I thought I might as well look into learning if I’m going to be off work.”

He started out as a skeptic, even though he’d heard about the benefit at conferences for RENEW and IBEW women. “Initially, I thought ‘what are they trying to sell here?’” he said. “Then I did some more research.”

He found a fully accredited program through Eastern Gateway Community College in Ohio with the flexibility of online classes divided into eight-week sessions. And that magic word: free.

“As much as I love education, I’ve got enough student loans to pay." he said. “This was free. It literally covers every last dollar to fill the gap between your tuition and any federal or state grants you receive — which they help you apply for. It couldn’t be easier.”

Baxter wasn’t accustomed to help like that. “I knew from an early age that whatever I wanted to do, I had to do myself,” he said.

He’d grown up in the Sacramento area in a family with few means. He put himself through college at the city’s Cal State campus, earning a business degree and indulging his passion for art with a course in gallery management. He hoped to make a career of it.

Heeding a professor’s advice, he headed to one of the nation’s art hubs as soon as he graduated. “I bought a one-way train ticket, grabbed everything I could carry, and took a three-day ride to Chicago,” he said. “I told myself, ‘sink or swim.’”

Baxter couch-surfed at night and explored the city by day, keeping an eye out for galleries.

“I’d go in and ask if they needed any help. I got responses ranging from ‘no,’ to ‘please leave’ to ‘we’re painting our back wall today, we’ve got beer and pizza.’” 

He was having a ball, but rarely had more than $20 in his pocket. Within a year, he followed his then-girlfriend three hours north to Madison and worked a series of low-wage jobs before landing a better-paying gig as a glass company driver.

But he wanted a real career and began analyzing his options. “I didn’t want to sit in front of a desk,” he said. “I wanted something different, something physical and challenging, a blend of using your brain and your body.”

After exhaustive research online he settled on the trades, narrowing his choice to plumber, equipment operator or electrician.

Asked how he made up his mind, he laughs.

“I chose electrical because the IBEW website was the easiest to navigate.”

The freshman apprentice still knew next to nothing about unions. “I started poking around, visiting the hall, started going to meetings, and then I learned about RENEW,” Baxter said. 

He was chair of the group by his second year and has been leading young members in community projects ever since, from clothing and food drives to a polar plunge for charity, service days at a local hospital, adopt-a-highway cleanups, sponsoring a music festival, and more.

The good works put Local 159, the IBEW, and unions in general in a good light, but it's not just PR. It's education, Baxter said, thinking back on his lack of awareness.

“I want to reverse that,” he said, full of thoughts about marketing and outreach, including his own visits to high schools to talk about the trades. 

“Why don’t I see union billboards on the highway?” he asked. “I know all about Coke and Pepsi.”

At his suggestion, RENEW members also spent six months viewing and discussing a series of labor history videos, some of the same materials that popped up later in Baxter’s curriculum.

“Watching the videos reinforced the solidarity and the brotherhood, learning together about struggles of labor in the past,” he said.

Baxter’s certificate in labor studies builds exponentially on everything he’s taught himself and experienced in recent years, and he has nothing but praise for the Union Plus benefit that made it possible.

“It’s an awesome program,” he said, urging all union members who think education is out of reach to look into the benefit for themselves or their families.

Areas of study vary among the associate, bachelor’s and certificate programs, but dozens of choices are offered, from business and arts to hospitality, cyber security, criminal justice, marketing, accounting, health care and many others.

“It’s something that’s there for you on your own time, super flexible and very rewarding,” Baxter said. “Because union members have banded together and used their collective strength, these kinds of benefits and opportunities are available. We should make the most of them.”

Union Plus offers scholarships in addition to the free college program. Learn more about both at