Steamfitting – and union membership – are in Brian Hunt’s blood. Raised in a union family, his father was a steamfitter. After an early career stint working in finance, Brian was considering going back to school when he got the call to start the Local 638 Steamfitters five-year Apprenticeship program. He started on August 1, 2007 – and that was it. “I love it,” says Brian. “I love the work, I love the trade and I love the union.” What Brian didn’t know at the time was that as his career moved forward there would be even more to love.
After his apprenticeship, one of Brian’s first jobs was the construction of Hudson Yards, a 28-acre commercial and residential development on Manhattan’s West Side. He was enjoying his work when he was approached by Local 638 to be a shop steward on that job. “I was young, but I did it,” explained Brian. “I got thrown into the reality of the site, dealing with contractors, subcontractors, and developers – and most importantly the members. Workers faced injustices daily; I was handling the grievances proficiently, but it was a crazy experience, and I knew I wanted to learn more.”
About a year or two later, the Steamfitters were having their international convention, and he was encouraged to run for one of the convention delegate positions. “I was a good steamfitter, and I was enjoying the work. In fact, I was thinking about going back to school for mechanical engineering. Politics and union representation were not really on my mind. But this felt like a fork in the road.”
Brian won a delegate role for the 2015 convention in San Diego. “It was cool being part of amending the union’s constitution,” Brian says of the union convention experience. “I learned a lot and felt more confident about where I wanted to go career-wise.” This clarity was good, because a year and a half later, he was encouraged to run for a part-time finance board position during the union’s general election. Brian ran his campaign and came in first place.
“This was when my perspective started to shift,” said Brian. “I was still working, but because of the union position, I was also seeing much more of labor as a whole. We were at events with other unions, and running campaigns, including a series of rallies called Count Me In at worksites all over the city, calling out non-union construction.”
Wanting to learn more about the labor movement and labor law, Brian started researching programs and enrolled in SLU’s Labor Studies Certificate Program in 2018. “At the beginning, I was only planning to get the certificate. I was working full time, on the finance board part time, and taking classes in the evening.”
“I would see these things at work in real life during the day and then learn what the things were at night in class. The course content was direct and dead on,” said Brian. He continued, “I took arbitration – I learned that while a lot is particular to a specific union contract, a lot is law that applies generally no matter the contract. Contractors and developers would create a culture that is not beneficial to the workers. Union members are not labor lawyers, so they don’t realize what is happening. There were so many situations in which I was able to say ‘wait – that is not right’ based on the course work I’d learned.”
Brian took four classes – one each semester – and says they flew by.
“I was really into it and excited, so I talked to my advisor about how to do more. He helped me decide on adding a Labor Relations certificate, which is graduate level with different classes.”
Again, doing one class at a time, Brian finished that certificate and decided to move forward with a BA; he is now finishing classes toward that goal. If he finishes them in Spring 2024, he will be the first SLU student to earn the BA in Labor Studies, a huge achievement for Brian and an exciting moment for SLU’s new BA program.
While Brian was making his way through school, his path in the union also continued. In summer 2023, Brian won an election to serve as a Business Agent with Local 638. Today he is a full-time union employee, representing members.
Local 638 has around 9,000 members in New York City. The steamfitters work mostly on new constructions projects of all kinds, though a small percentage serve as in-house steamfitters for city agencies, including police, fire, and sanitation. Steamfitters install pipes and maintain piping systems that carry water and hazardous gases and chemicals for heating, cooling, and other processes.
Brian says that balancing a full-time union job with classes is slightly more challenging, because Business Agent hours can be long and busy with events on weekends and in the evening – but he is up for the challenge because he loves school. “I enjoy school and I enjoy the courses. I look forward to going to class. It’s more challenging than just coming home after work – but I don’t mind putting effort in. Plus, the more I learn at SLU, the better I am at my job. The program speaks directly to my work, and the knowledge I now have is good for our membership.”
Brian says the knowledge and confidence he’s gained at SLU gives him an “edge” in the New York City labor movement. “The labor movement can be challenging, especially in New York City where there are many powerful and dynamic forces. I would highly recommend anyone involved in labor to learn more about the machinery and get involved with a program like this. There are not a lot of Labor Studies programs available in the U.S., but it’s available here at SLU! I’m so glad they started this school. The professors are super on point, so impressive, knowledgeable, and serious about the work.”
In addition to Brian’s love of work, school, and the union, he loves the advocacy he does each day on behalf of the membership. “As steamfitters, we understand the operations of a building in a way that others don’t, and we don’t get enough credit sometimes. When I hear people talking down to workers with zero warrant or people treating others with preconceived notions, it drives me nuts. It’s always rubbed me the wrong way. I like to treat everyone with respect. The opportunity to represent and defend my own peers means a lot to me, it is rewarding. Being able to put people to work so they can feed their families and be treated with dignity and respect is a great feeling.”
And his father? Is he proud? Brian smiles. “Yeah, Dad is retired but he is still a dues-paying union member. And he is very proud.”
SLU is proud of Brian too and we look forward to seeing him at commencement!