Elevator constructors are a cross between coal miners and custom car mechanics. They work in dark, narrow shafts, but instead of descending deep into the earth, they ascend to the top of skyscrapers. In that narrow space they build a high performance car that transports passengers safely from floor to floor, up and down a hoistway. And as with coal mining, working in a cramped, dark environment makes elevator construction a dangerous occupation. “You are trusting your life to the people you work with,” temporary mechanic Michael Knight explains. “The person above you, below you, to the side of you, any screw-up can have repercussions.”
There are a little over a thousand elevator constructors in Northern California and Nevada. Knight’s father was an elevator mechanic, and for generations this elite trade was a father and son operation; only family members got jobs. In the past, someone could work as a helper for 30 years and retire as a helper, never making it to mechanic. The union apprenticeship program has changed all that. Anyone who wants to can take a written test to join the program. Those who successfully finish the four-year program are eligible to become mechanics.
Elevator construction requires wiring, welding, rigging, machine assembly and fabrication. “The best thrill of it all is to ride in an elevator and have somebody say, ‘Wow, we got here so fast and I didn’t even feel it going up.’ That is when you know you are the real deal,” brags Knight.
Organized Labor visited members of the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 8, working on a 60-story skyscraper in downtown San Francisco. Local 8 represents elevator constructors from south of Bakersfield to the Oregon Border and East to Northern Nevada they have 1,050 members.