SM Local 104 (northern California) Business Representative Alicia Mijares – the first woman business representative in the local’s history – was born into the labor movement.
“Three of my grandparents were union members, both of my parents and my stepfather were union members, both of my brothers, my only sister and my wife are all union members,” she said. “I walked my first picket line in front of a Safeway with my mother, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers.”
Mijares was not, however, born into the sheet metal trade; she entered the industry almost by accident. As a high school graduate without a clear vision of her future, she worked at a pizza restaurant and in a precision sheet metal shop, where the best-paid employees made $12.50 and hour. (“It’s funny how that sounded like great money back then,” Mijares recalled.) One day, a customer picking up a pizza order asked Mijares if she liked her job; she replied that it was the second job she’d worked that day that she didn’t like. In response, the customer passed her his Local 104 business card.
“When I read ‘sheet metal,’ I thought it would be something similar to the precision shop where I had been working,” Mijares remembered. “I didn’t realize at the moment that it was construction, so I went down, took the test, passed it and began as a pre-apprentice.”
Mijares immediately took to life as a union sheet metal worker. She worked in both the shop and in the field, treasuring the contrasting stability and variety of each respective setting. But it’s not just the hands-on elements of the craft that she finds appealing; her favorite part, Mijares says, is the impact SMART sheet metal members have on their communities.
Mijares threw herself into Local 104 union activities from the start – growing up in a union household, she knew that the members are the union. She participated in precinct-walking and phone-banking efforts as an apprentice and as a journeyperson, helping support pro-worker candidates and policies, and she served her fellow members as a shop steward and on Local 104’s Executive Board. It was during her time as shop steward that she noticed a fomenting disconnect – the members weren’t necessarily aware of the work that their elected representatives and organizers were performing on their behalf. Now, as Local 104 business representative, Mijares wants to bridge that disconnect; to remind the membership why we call each other brother and sister.
“We always want to go after project labor agreements, we always want to bring in more work for the membership – that’s the top priority – but what I would like to do is improve member participation,” she said. “Members pay to be in the membership – [not engaging with the union] is like writing a check to a gym and never setting foot inside.”
Mijares is currently serving in her first term as business representative. One of the highlights, she said, is when she gets to dispatch members: “Being able to make that phone call and say, ‘hey, are you ready to go back to work?’ It’s always a happy conversation.”
She also values the opportunity to advocate for the trade – something she was already doing as a rank-and-file member.
“I participate in a lot of outreach, whether it’s career fairs or anything else, because a lot of young women are starting to approach our table and say, ‘what is this about?’ So I talk about how great the trade is; I’ve been able to buy a home in the state of California, I’ve been able to travel.”
Mijares makes sure not to sugarcoat the industry – sheet metal is hard work, from the drafting and math required to pass the apprenticeship test to the early starts and long hours on the job. But she always tells potential apprentices a motto that applies as much to union leadership as it does to sheet metal work: “Hard is what makes it great. If it was easy, anybody would do it.”