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People’s Inclusive Welding empowers workers in South Portland

by | May 1, 2022

photos/courtesy PIW

In the back of Duvall’s Service Center, an auto-repair business in South Portland, there’s a groundbreaking new trade school called People’s Inclusive Welding (PIW). The small shop has five welding booths with vents leading up to the ceiling. On the back wall is a pink and blue mural depicting a welding hood with ACAB, BLM and 1312 painted in black letters. There’s a plastic rainbow hanging from the front door beneath stickers that read “Taxation is Theft” and “What’s your Safe Word?”

Jo Remillard, PIW’s founder and lead instructor, has put an incredible amount of work into creating this space. They launched the non-profit school last summer. It’s intended to be a space where people who usually aren’t encouraged to participate in the trades can get their foot in the door. PIW offers multi-week trainings as well as workshops for building specific things, like fire pits.

“I just wanted to make something that I needed,” Jo told me. They came to welding through sculpture-making, and entered the industry when they were in their early 20s. The term Jo uses most often to describe themself is “adrenaline junkie.” Their years working as a boilermaker included jobs all over the country, projects that held their attention and kept them excited.

But the environments Jo worked in were not welcoming. They were often the only femme person on a crew, and they described horrific stories of harassment on the job — jokes about menstruation and pregnancy were among the tamer examples of the harassment they faced. They were often nervous about speaking up because of the culture of the industry. “Nobody wants to help you if you’re the PC police,” Jo said. So they just stomached a lot of the injustice.

The COVID lockdown provided an opportunity for them to do something new, and the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd pushed them forward into anti-racism and anti-capitalism activism. It was around this time that some colleagues from the Congo reached out to Jo with an idea. They wanted to start a welding school, and wanted Jo to be a partner.

The team started working together to make the school a reality, but then Jo’s colleagues got an opportunity for high-paying work in Florida and weren’t able to be involved anymore. So Jo made the decision to keep the plan going, and with the help of their friends and online community, put a board together to bring PIW to life.

Fundamental elements of PIW’s mission are to support wealth redistribution and create opportunities for people who are marginalized by existing power structures and systems. One board member is involved with the local chapter of Resource Generation, a group of young people with generational wealth who are committed to wealth redistribution. That board member was able to provide the resources to open the school. PIW has also been supported through community fundraisers and memberships from local businesses, including Tandem Bakery in Portland. “We were blown away with the amount we raised, and all the support we receive,” Jo commented.

Tuition for the multi-week welding programs, including a 60 Hour GMAW (MIG) Welding Course and a 320 Hour Welding 101 Course, is charged on a sliding scale. If someone is truly in need, they can attend the course for free. “We ask people how much they can pay, and we ask them to be honest with us,” said Jo. “Don’t tell us you can afford any more or less than you can. We don’t want to mimic the current educational system, which forces folks to take out massive loans and buries them in debt. This program is meant to give folks a leg up.”

The first Welding 101 course had three students who existed along a spectrum of genders and sexualities. The students learned the MIG, TIG, and Stick welding processes. Classes are held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with breaks halfway through the day for safety demos and lunch. When students come into the shop in the morning, their first task is to check their equipment to make sure everything is set up to be used safely. At night, Jo goes from booth to booth, moving things and changing settings to reinforce that safety lesson. On a job, “you don’t know who used that piece of gear last and whether or not they knew what they were doing,” they explained.

A student named Charlie came into the course feeling nervous about going back to school. He’d had some traumatic experiences in traditional education. But he loved having Jo as a teacher. On the students’ final day of class, they all congratulated Jo on being such an effective instructor. Jo, a Cancer, enjoyed the sentimental moment. Charlie sees himself moving to New Mexico and diving into a career in welding. “I’m at a place right now where I’m ready to get lost in a job,” he said.

On the last day of class, a PIW board member and former employee at the Southern Maine Workers Center (who requested anonymity) visited the class and chatted with students about the rights they have in the workplace. They talked about how best to deal with harassment, and different laws that will protect them. Two big takeaways from the talk: first, keep a detailed log of what happened at work and when, so if you need to make a case against a discriminatory employer you’ll have specific instances of harassment to back it up; and, second, make connections among your colleagues. If an individual goes to an employer with a complaint, they are not a legally protected class. But if two or more employees make a complaint together, this qualifies as “Concerted Activity,” and includes more legal protections. “Students can always call if they need support,” Jo said, “no matter if it’s two months or 10 years from now.”

As PIW accumulates more alumni, Jo plans to keep in touch with the graduates and learn from their experiences in the workplace. Their goal is to have a vetted list of employers that PIW can recommend to its students. They hope that by holding employers to a higher standard of behavior and workplace atmosphere, they can encourage a change in the industry. Jo is incredibly proud of the school they’ve been a part of building, and is looking forward to the next class of students getting their start in this blue-collar trade.

PIW is currently registering students for two-week TIG and MIG welding courses, as well as the 320 Hour Fall Intensive Course. For more info, visit piwsopo.org.

Camille Howard is a writer and podcaster with roots in DownEast Maine. You can find more of their work, including their blog, THE DEAL, at camillehoward.com

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