Going to college was an opportunity for me to step up. There were things I saw in the business we’re in and I didn’t understand. This is giving me a clearer understanding.
James Hall was a little skeptical when he learned he could go to college for free—but he was also intrigued. He had developed an appetite for learning. As president of Local 19 (Philadelphia), Hall had attended the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers, which awoke his interest in learning more to further his work in the labor movement.
“I’m like a nosey neighbor: I wanted to know more,” Hall says. “Going to School for Workers, I had learned about union history and the union side of our work. I wanted to know about the business side—why things take effect the way they do with (Boilermaker employers).”
So, at a Metal Trades Department conference in Las Vegas, when a program was presented that offered free college tuition for union members, Hall’s curiosity was piqued. Was it for real? He took information home and checked it out.
Now three years in, enrolled as an Eastern Gateway Community College student and finishing his classes toward an associate degree in business management, Hall is proof of the program’s validity.
“The only thing I’ve paid for so far is paper,” he says. “Every semester, the bill is paid.”
It’s also testament to the adage that it’s never too late to reach for new goals.
Hall, who’s been a Boilermaker for 15 years, started his career after high school running his own DJ business. He worked for himself as an entrepreneur, doing odd jobs and cabinet making in addition to DJing. But he had family members employed at Philly Shipyard who talked up the good, steady job, so he applied and went to work there. In 2014 he was elected president of the local.
“Going to college was an opportunity for me to step up. There were things I saw in the business we’re in and I didn’t understand,” he says. “This is giving me a clearer understanding; and when I talk to management, I can talk at their level and make them see what we’re seeing—what’s going on with union brothers and sisters—better than before. I can break it down more clearly understanding the business perspective.”
Juggling school, work and home isn’t easy, but Hall is careful about keeping a schedule to balance family, study time, work and leisure. Classes are online, which helps. He schedules around lodge meetings. And he has a great support system at home—which, he emphasizes, is critical. His wife, who has two master’s degrees, well understands the effort required.
“My wife and kids love it. They saw something I didn’t see in myself as I studied contracts and such for work, and they encouraged me to enroll. They’re very supportive. You have to have good people in your corner. You have to have willpower. You have to know that you’re not going to know everything in the beginning. And you’ve got to buckle down and study.”
It’s working. Hall has consistently made the dean’s list. After he graduates, he plans to apply to Drexel or Temple University to continue his education in business and study political science.
“I love to learn. I look forward to continue the fight for labor, bettering things for union brothers and sisters,” he says. “You’re in this world and you wonder why and how things happen. And if you just apply yourself and read and study, it’s hard work, but it pays off.”
Thinking about going back to school? Find more information about the Metal Trades Department free college benefit: https://freecollege.metaltrades.org/.
Union Plus also offers free college and more for union members and their families: https://www.unionplus.org/benefits/education/free-college