Layoffs dampen celebration for new wireman

BALTIMORE — This should be a time to celebrate for Carlton Stone, 42. He received a letter from Local 24 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Dec. 4 that after completing his five-year apprenticeship he is “now eligible for membership in Local 24, classification, construction wireman.”

He was asked to complete an application and send it back with a check for $104 to cover dues, death benefits and other membership fees.

“It was wonderful, getting the letter,” he said. “It’s been a struggle. I’ve worked steadily. I drove down to jobs in Washington D.C. and Virginia five days a week. We were remodeling and rewiring supermarkets, installing new refrigerators and lights.”

Stone arrived early so reliably that his supervisor gave him the keys to the company’s tool trailer. “I laid out the tools and material so the crew could start work immediately when they got to work in the morning,” he said.

There is one big hitch: Four months ago Stone was laid off. He has been searching without success for a job, one of more than 149,000 jobless workers in the Baltimore area, an increase of 43 percent since last January. The official jobless rate in Baltimore is now 5.1 percent.

Stone is so strapped that coming up with his union dues is tough. His contribution to family income is a meager unemployment compensation benefit every two weeks. His union health insurance runs out this month, leaving the family dependent on his wife’s health care benefit as a pharmacist at the Maryland State Detention Center.

“My wife and I own a house,” he said. “We have three children. So far, we’ve been keeping up with our $835 mortgage. My greatest worry is losing our house. We’ve been living there 10 years. We’d have to start all over.”

The real problem now, he continued “is keeping the lights on and heating the house.” Their monthly BG&E utility bill is a whopping $600, reflecting the 72 percent rate hike the company was granted two years ago despite angry protests by ratepayers. The cost of food — and until recently, gasoline — has also been a killer.

“BG&E is making all the money,” Stone said. “It’s been rough on my wife. She’s carrying the whole load, working double shifts. She comes home dead tired and gets up and goes again next day. We can’t even think about the holidays. Shopping for gifts is a no-no.”

The financial pressures are so great that the Stones sent two of their children to live with their grandparents in Jamaica — their youngest, 10 years old, and their eldest son, studying to be an engineer. Their middle child is enrolled in a community college in Baltimore. She works part-time to pay tuition and other fees.

Stone worked for 17 years as an auto transmission rebuilder before a close friend, Local 24 electrician Morgan Wheeler, recruited him to the IBEW apprenticeship program. He said he enjoys the open air and the freedom to move around working as an electrician. The new job also turned him into a staunch union man. “Being a union member gives you some security, a voice, and representation,” he said.

Like millions of hard-pressed working people, Stone is a strong supporter of Barack Obama. “I think his demeanor means a lot. He calms people. He cares. He gives us hope,” Stone said. “With all these people losing their jobs, Bush is nowhere to be found. He didn’t want to extend unemployment compensation. Obama supported it.” That extension of jobless benefits is a lifeline for Stone who was about to exhaust his benefits.

The right-wing media “keep hitting Obama on how much his jobs program is going to cost. I don’t think they should be squawking about that when we’re shelling out $10 billion every month in Iraq. Obama’s program is going to benefit the country and benefit the people. For eight years Bush took the country down. He tore humanity down. Now it’s time to build the country up.”