Two from Plumbers Local 34 honored with nationwide ‘Heroes’ award

Stephanie Mullin

The St. Paul plumbers union has a pair of heroes in its apprenticeship pipeline.

Twice in 2022, apprentices with Plumbers Local 34 have been named Tradeswomen Heroes by North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). Each month the awards program recognizes four union trades-women, selected from across the country, for their work on and off the jobsite.

Local 34 third-year apprentice Julia Kunze received the award in August. Stephanie Mullin, also a third-year apprentice, was honored in November.

NABTU President Sean McGarvey has said award winners “are exemplary building trades’ members” who have made their local unions proud. “They are role models and trailblazers, and reflect what we love and honor about our workforce,” he added.

For both Kunze and Mullin, receiving the honor was a surprise – albeit a more public surprise for Kunze, who didn’t even know she had been nominated until Business Manager Dean Gale made an announcement during a local union meeting that she’d won.

“I had no clue,” Kunze said. “I was very surprised, very honored, and it was just amazing to even be nominated and be thought of. Thankfully, I didn’t have to give a speech.”

Mullin, meanwhile, got the news in a phone call before Local 34’s December union meeting.

“I’ve never really gotten an award like this before, even with other high school or college classes I took,” Mullin said. “I’m honored to have been nominated, and I’m honored to have won. It’s good to be recognized for having a good work ethic.”

Mullin has stuck with plumbing as a career, she said, because she likes learning by doing and working with her hands. She also likes the earn-as-you-learn model that Building Trades apprenticeships offer.

Julia Kunze

“I’ve held different jobs but never really was able to settle on something I wanted to do for the rest of my life until now,” she said. “I tried to go back to school to become a nurse and found it was very difficult to do that full time and earn a living.”

Family members urged her to consider an apprenticeship in the construction trades, and she landed on plumbing.

“I was working as a nursing assistant for three and a half years,” she remembered. “I worked my last shift on a Sunday – I worked a double – and that Monday morning I was showing up to my first job as a helper in 2019.”

Kunze’s route to an apprenticeship with the plumbers was more direct. Her father, Troy Kunze, is a journey-level member of Local 34.

“I love working with my hands and actually building things and seeing the beginning and end of the process and being like, ‘I did that, and it will be there for many years to come,’” Kunze said. “I can show my kid the things I’ve helped build.”

The Tradeswomen Heroes awards program is part of NABTU’s intentional efforts in recent years to do more to recruit women workers into the unionized construction trades – and give them every opportunity to thrive once they begin work. Unions have invested in mentorship programs, outreach initiatives and campaigns like the awards program that celebrate the unique accomplishments of women who are thriving in a male-dominated field.

Mullin and Kunze said their experiences in the industry so far have been positive.

“Obviously, you do meet some people who are a little grumpy about life in general, who may not always be the most pleasant to work with,” Mullin laughed. “But I have not really run into any outright sexist things.

“Most of the journeymen I’ve worked with have been more than accommodating in answering the questions I’ve asked or even helping with things I just haven’t learned to do yet. I’m really grateful for that.”

“It can be kind of a shock, but it’s a great career,” Kunze said. “You don’t have to be super strong or super book smart. It’s something that’s more skill based.

“You learn something new every day. That’s the one thing I love about it – you’re always learning new things.”

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