The Carpenters Union Lottery Offers a Shot at the Middle Class


At the corner of Houston and Hudson, six blocks from the Soho bakery where ladies in expensive sandals queued up before the crack of dawnall summer to taste the Cronut, a different kind of line was forming. At first it was just a couple of burly men planted in lawn chairs outside the New York City District Council of Carpenters. A week later more than 1,000 others—security guards, welders, construction workers, and baby-faced kids fresh out of high school—had pitched tents and unfurled sleeping bags next to them. A passerby surveyed the crowd and guessed it was some sort of mixed martial arts ticket giveaway.

It wasn’t.

Welcome to post-recession New York, where a middle-class job is a lottery prize and folks will camp out on the street just for a chance to play.

The carpenters union apprenticeship lottery only comes around once every few years. Anyone can submit his or her name. You just have to show up, fill out a card, and drop it in a box.

For this year’s mid-August call, 750 cards are available. Who gets picked depends on employer demand. There’s no telling how many jobs there will be, or when they will open up. But those who are selected will have a shot at one of the last-of-their-kind jobs that virtually guarantee a place in the middle class.

Five years ago, Jason Geronimo didn’t have to wait in line. He just walked in and dropped off his card. “I happened to get lucky, I guess. About six to eight months later, I got a letter in the mail saying, you know, come to orientation.”

At the time Geronimo was living with his mother in New Jersey, making $15 an hour installing drywall. Last week he was on his new job at Madison Square Garden, where he earns $48 an hour. He just bought a three-bedroom house closer to the city, where he hopes to start a family with his new wife.

He isn’t swilling Champagne or gorging on Cronuts—he just has a normal job that pays him enough to provide. “It is a hard life. You’re here early, sometimes you’ve gotta stay late, sometimes you gotta do some really labor-intensive things,” Geronimo says. But “show up every day, and show them that you care, and they keep you on. You make enough to have a good life, you know?”

The folks in line outside the carpenters union came for the same thing: a life like his.

Donovan Cole works construction. He and his cousin Wendell Ortiz slept on the street for three nights to enter their names.

If Cole’s card is pulled—and it can take years, if it gets pulled at all—he gets to fill out an application, take drug and math tests, and sit for an interview. If he can jump through those hoops, he will get to enroll in the four-year apprentice program. On the other end awaits a job as a union carpenter, where his wages and benefits could exceed $200,000 a year.

With such high stakes, one might think that spending a few days in line would start to feel like competing in the Hunger Games. Cole says it was the opposite. The guys in front of him held his place when he left to shower. And when his partner, Brianne, brought food, they all shared. They bonded, not over anything profound, “just the fact that it’s so hard to get a job.”

Cole has a job, but a union job—with security, benefits, a pension, and better pay—would be different. It’s an increasingly rare commodity these days.

Nationwide, union membership dropped to the lowest rate in a century this year: 11.3 percent, a figure not seen since 1916. The numbers are more encouraging in New York, which, at 23 percent, boasts the highest membership rate in the nation.

“The decline of unions since the 1950s tracks almost exactly with the decline of the American middle class,” says Robert Reich, secretary of labor under President Clinton and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches a class on income inequality.

Those in line seemed to know that, which is why some slept on the street for a week to get a lottery card. They took turns watching over each other’s stuff while some played football in the street and others went to Chelsea Piers for the free kayaking. They read newspapers and slept with the hoods of their sweatshirts pulled over their eyes.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Marquisse Valentine says. “Motorcycles would ride by real loud. Garbage trucks were picking up trash.”

The 20-year-old moved to the Bronx from Connecticut about six months ago. His brother is still living back home, and the drive into the city took him so long that he ended up about 300 people behind Valentine and his uncle in line. They didn’t even try to sneak him in.

“It would have caused a domino effect [of ill will],” Valentine explains. “For you to just come and skip—it’s disrespectful.”

Not everyone saw it the same way. Late Sunday night some “riffraff” tried to cut the line, James Day says. A few tough guys set them straight. Day is already a union member; he was camping out to keep his 19-year-old son company.

By the time the sun came up on Monday, more than 1,600 people were waiting.

“In years past, everyone basically got a slot in the lottery that was in line,” says Kwame Patterson, spokesman for the New York City District Council of Carpenters. “In fact, we had guys that would come in maybe two hours, three hours, four hours after the line was depleted, and they’d still get a slot.

“This year we ran out of slots in two hours,” Patterson continues. “We had to inform everyone that was still standing in line after we ran out that we may do this again in 2015, but we’re out. We don’t have any more slots to provide.”

Fewer than half of those who waited got a card. Even the ones who did will go back to the jobs they have (or back to the hunt for one) while they wait to hear from the union. They won’t hold their breath. “We just recently called somebody who was on the 2009 list,” Patterson says.

Outside the union hall, working men say gruff goodbyes and exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Valentine sits on a loading dock across the street with his uncle, waiting for his brother to reach the front of the line. Asked if he’d be jealous if his brother got the call and he did not, Valentine shakes his head.

“I’d be happy for him,” he says. “Can’t be mad. This could really change someone’s life.”