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Feature Story: Cleveland Trades Bring Second Chances

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Cleveland, Ohio is in the beginning stages of creating labor and community partnerships. And Cleveland resident Marcus Burts, a 37-year-old African-American journeyman bricklayer, shines as a beacon of hope for youth, men, women and returning citizens who are looking for family-supporting wages, health benefits, and a safe working environment. With the help of labor leader Dave Wondowski of the Cleveland Building Trades & Construction Council and Cleveland’s accredited apprenticeship programs, Marcus has left his troubled past behind him for good and is contributing to the well-being of the same streets that almost abandoned him.

Marcus was born in Columbus to parents who didn’t have much, but always reminded him to “be there for anything you create and continue anything that you start.” Always having an interest in buildings, his parents’ words stuck with him as he journeyed through adolescence. Growing up, however, the people around him became easily caught up in drinking, drugs, hustles, and scams, and although he tried to focus on school, the lifestyle took over and he slowly got into petty drug trouble, which led to incarceration at the age of 19. With no high school diploma, and sentence length requirements on jail education programs, Marcus thought drugs would always be his life. “Who would ever give a person like me a chance to do anything in life,” he’d ask himself. At this point, he had no education, no work experience, and was a three-time convicted felon. “I felt like I could never be anything or amount to anything.”

He was sent to Mansfield Correctional Institution on a 15-year maximum sentence, where he ended up with a federal indictment, and “decided to become a better person in prison, the way they say you can’t.”

Marcus’s long-term interest in building remained, but he had no connection to the possibilities in or outside of jail. He didn’t want to be in the kitchen, which is where they tried to convince everyone to work. He had seen different work crews to do construction around the prison, but with no relevant experience, he wasn’t offered the opportunity. After two attempts - “I wanna learn” - he was allowed him to work on HVAC basics including freon recovery and ice machine harvesting, which segwayed into access to their carpentry and construction shops, where Marcus spent hours talking to and learning from the workers. He earned his GED, learned how to use a computer, took up a vocational and business courses, started working at a construction shop, and finally gained an understanding of the things he had been interested in as a boy.

After two years, Marcus was a new man. “My life was overcrowded with education as opposed to foolishness.” He had gotten a taste of real life and was ready to go home and do something beneficial. He got into a carpentry apprenticeship and a journeyman bricklayer who taught carpentry convinced him to take leftover brick to learn how to lay brick, which was a separate trade not actually offered at the prison. By the end of Marcus’s sentence he received a Master Carpenter Certification from the West Virginia Department of Labor.

One year prior to his release on July 22, 2008, Marcus wrote a letter to the Apprenticeship Coordinator in the Carpenter’s Union in Cleveland, informing them he’d be returning home and would be looking for employment, only to face the rejection of no response. Marcus’s 12+ years of incarceration was not appealing to potential employers, but he eventually linked up with the Cleveland Job Corps to work building porches and redoing kitchens, bathrooms and basements. He ended up at the Union Hall, where he met former Business Manager Dave Wondolowski, and was finally able to take a skills evaluation for entry with a warm welcome. “I wanted to help anyone that came to me and truly had the desire to be a Bricklayer. This isn’t a field you could work in if your heart wasn’t in it.” Dave says. “I really felt for the guy. You had to be there but I remember, like it was yesterday, the look in his eyes. In the seven years I spent as an agent for the Local, I never saw that look. I knew right from there he was going to work out.” Finally, Marcus “didn’t feel like a felon, finally felt a part of this world.”

Marcus’s experience in prison allowed him to finish the Bricklayer and Allied Craftworkers Local 5’s four-year apprenticeship program in only two years. Dave always prioritized community inclusion as a stable component of project labor agreements, and helped Marcus land jobs such as the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veterans Medical Center, Euclid Tech Center, Galucci’s Italian Food Market, and the Cleveland Browns Stadium, and John Carroll University. “I think Marcus’s story is one of hope and renewal. I am extremely proud of him and consider my aiding in his success to be perhaps my brightest achievement as a union leader.”

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. There are not enough people in the Trades pushing the word out to people like me. It’s not readily available or publicized, and there are too many people without access to the information. Anyone who has actually been through it would never say anything against it. Now, I have a decent life. The Building Trades offered me a fair opportunity at life. This is the perfect opportunity to be a man, and I now have the ability to provide for my family with a sense of security. This is actually attainable.”

Now, although the Trades don’t have any specific prison outreach programs, they are continuing to spread their message of opportunity and are engaging residents with job fairs, community events, and public gatherings. They are working with Cuyahoga Community College to develop an adult pre-apprenticeship program, where displaced workers and high school graduates come to experience the different trades and apply for apprenticeships with the various Unions. Thankfully, with the Trades’ new approach, and leaders like Dave Wondolowski, Marcus's story is becoming the norm, not the exception to the rules.

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