Even in the predawn shadows, the school looms large over the park across the street. Not only because of its size – Western International High School with its three-story brick exterior is certainly massive – but because of the community it serves. Western, deep in the heart of Southwest Detroit, is the most culturally diverse public high school in Detroit, with over 2,000 students. So when Operation Engineers 324 member and steward Ben Gibson enters the dark halls before 6:00 am to begin his workday, he is well-aware of the impact it has.
Gibson goes through a narrow wooden door and descends several staircases, travels down a short hall, and enters the cavernous boiler room. Originally built to house the massive coal boilers required to heat the school, there is more space now. The more modern, natural gas boilers are certainly more space efficient, if still massive. When the weather gets cooler, Gibson starts up the boilers, gets them up to steam, and checks that it is running right. Today, we’re in one of those famous Michigan Indian Summers, so he passes the boilers and moves to his quiet office, where he goes through his checklist for the day. In a few hours, the halls will be teaming with kids, and making sure they have the best environment to learn is what Gibson wants to ensure.
There will be messages and requests, items around the school that need attention. Ben Gibson prides himself on doing it all. Western has boilers for heating, and HVAC for cooling. It also houses a full pool that needs to be maintained. But that’s not where it ends – he can be found doing anything needed, from changing light bulbs to fixing leaks.
Gibson makes a list and gets to work.
Further north, in the Barton-McFarland neighborhood in Detroit, fellow 324 Stationary Engineer and Steward John Strolger is doing similar things to get David L. Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School ready for class. Strolger is new to this school, coming over after spending the last 7 of his 38 year career as an Operator at Nolan Elementary-Middle School. Mackenzie is a newer school, built in the last few years, and Strolger is using his accumulated knowledge to familiarize himself with the facilities and fix a few nagging issues.
A drainage issue has been a nuisance of late, so he puts on boots, and heads outside to see why water has been accumulating in an area beside the staff parking lot. Later in the day, he will be showing Sharanae Marion around – she will be joining staff as an Engineer trainee herself and working with him at the school. She has recently finished her certifications, and Strolger is looking forward to the help.
Combined, Gibson and Strolger have 80 years of experience as Operating Engineers, but they are just two of the dozens of OE324 members working for GDI Integrated Facility Services in Detroit Public Schools. When both hired in, the Detroit Board of Education oversaw Engineers in the facilities, but it has long since been handed over to private companies to manage. GDI oversees the building maintenance, operation and even cleaning. Additionally, their new partnership with OE324 in the most recent contract includes an investment in training, one that both Stewards agree is one of the most valuable things they can receive. Having both come through IUOE apprenticeships, they both testify to the value of education. And after decades of service, both speak highly and freely about the advantages of being a part of a union.
Gibson started his career 40 years ago and has worked in the Detroit Public Schools the entire time. Over the years he has served as a Steward, was active in both locals 547 and, after the merger, 324, and seen many changes.
“A school like this used to have five or six Engineers,” he explains, “but as the years went by and financial situations being what they were, it’s usually much fewer now. It used to be all about boilers. Some had 24-hour crews. And of course, HVAC. Now, it’s about everything.”
Gibson shares duties with Kevin Bennett, who has been with 324 for 3 years. Bennett also Engineers at the nearby Amelia Earhart School.
“We’re like firemen – some days, there’s not much to do. But a lot of days we spend running around putting out fires.”
Strolger’s path has been similar. In 1980, he was working as a custodian for Detroit Public Schools and noticed a group of guys who seemed more relaxed than he was and asked what they did for the school.
“They said they were the Stationary Engineers. I wanted to know how they got their job and what they did. They said, ‘they don’t pay me for what I do, they pay me for what I know,” Strolger laughs. “So I figured I wanted to know what they knew. I had never even been in a boiler room!”
Like Gibson, he joined the Apprenticeship program with what was then Local 547, and upon graduation, started working for the City of Detroit on fountains, pools and in the city marina. When the opportunity arose, he went over to DPS.
Both credit their Apprenticeships for helping them become the Engineers they are today. “It makes a difference in skills, in knowledge, in education,” says Gibson, but adds, “and professionalism. When you can be trained by the best engineers, you learn how to be professional.” Gibson, who also works part time at both MGM Casino and the University of Detroit Dental School, shares what he tells young Operating Engineers when he talks to them.
“Reputation is everything. The better your reputation is, the better opportunities you are going to get.”
Strolger adds the importance of lifelong learning. “I never stopped taking classes, learning new things.” With the new contract between GDI and OE324, he intends to use his stewardship to help younger Engineers by “sharing the knowledge” he’s gained.
Both are proud of their long careers, and of the work they and their coworkers do daily. They are also thankful for their union, and for unions in general.
“My family is union. Both my daughters are UAW. My wife was CWA at AT&T before she retired. The union has been very good to me. I’ve had a fruitful career, and I’ve enjoyed it.” Gibson breaks out in a grin. “I still enjoy it!”
Gibson shares a joke he feels explains a lot. In it, a baker, a carpenter and an Engineer are sentenced to death by the guillotine. The baker puts his head in, but the contraption doesn’t work, and he is freed. The carpenter does the same, but again it jams, and he too is let go. The Engineer is brought up to the device, but before they do anything else, he turns to the executioner.
“You know, I can fix that.”
For Strolger, what he does is easy to explain.
“I check, I maintain, and I operate my equipment. Daily. That’s what I do. I am an Operating Engineer.”