Francisco Altamirano was born in Mexico, but his roots in the U.S. go deep. He has photos of his grandfather at work in Chicago in the 1920s. During his own youth, he and his family spent summers in California, working in agriculture. For previous generations of his family, the U.S. was a place to come and make money before heading back home. Altamirano instead got a Green Card in 1986 and became a citizen three years later.
Achieving the American dream wasn’t easy. “Everything an American does is twice as hard for immigrants to do,” he said. For him, the path to success led him to become a journeyman glazier. Today, he works as an organizer for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), helping others to do as he did.
Altamirano was installing glass for a commercial window company in Chicago when someone offered him a job in the Twin Cities. It took him a month to decide to move farther north, but when he called, the job was waiting. Within three months, his employer enrolled him in the three-year IUPAT apprenticeship program. “It was a big challenge — reading the technical books in addition to learning the job,” he said.
On the job and in classes, “I learned a lot of things — how to weld, read blueprints, do layouts,” he said. “I learned to respect other trades. I learned to be a supervisor. They show you safety. You earn while you learn. You’re not going to school broke.”
That was important because Altamirano was raising his two U.S.-born daughters and supporting his wife and two younger children in Mexico. After he became a journeyman, the union provided the proof of employment and income that enabled him to reunite his family.
Being a glazier is a tough job, he said, especially in winter, working outdoors with glass and metal. “The supervisor tells you what to do and when to finish. There are other trades behind you, so you have to stay on schedule. One day you’re hanging from the fifteenth floor of a building, and the next day you’re working at ground level.”
Altamirano has worked on projects all around the Twin Cities. He remembers the Molecular and Cellular Biology building at the University of Minnesota most fondly. “I wasn’t a journeyman yet, but I could do the work. I saw the point of what I was doing — a career, not just a job.”
What do you do as a union organizer?
I’m on the streets everyday. I talk to people about the features and rewards of being with the union. We represent glaziers, painters, drywall installers and trade show workers, too.
What are the benefits of the union, for workers and employers?
The union provides ongoing training. It’s knowledge you can take with you anywhere. You earn a living wage, you get benefits. We need hard workers, but we can’t make poor workers. For employers, a company can call the union hall and say “I need five good glaziers” and know they’ll get someone who is trained and knowledgeable.
Has the glazing industry changed since you started?
Workers are more efficient. The industry is more competitive. Window systems are more efficient. Workers have to keep upgrading their skills every year.
Are the finishing trades more diverse than when you first started?
We’re very culturally diverse now. Only 5 percent of our workers are women. We’re promoting the finishing trades to them. □