Labor Secretary Greets ‘Breaking Chains of Poverty’ Graduates

A history of truancy kept Charles Strothers from graduating high school. He earned his GED certificate but then, Strothers says, he still “ran the streets” of Pittsburgh for five years.pic1

Eventually, Strothers was arrested. “There’s no reason for it. I was hanging around the wrong people, I guess,” he said. “You have to find a better way.”

Strothers found one through the Breaking the Chains of Poverty (BTCP) program, a partnership between the USW and the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) that provides training and educational opportunities for unemployed or underemployed people seeking to turn their lives around and find rewarding careers.

Strothers eventually graduated from the BTCP program and became a successful apprentice electrician with IBEW Local Union #5 in Pittsburgh.

“We have been able to provide people not only with the skill set, but with the motivation and the opportunity to contribute to society,” said USW Vice President Fred Redmond. “It allows us to help people help themselves. That is the key.”

The BTCP program has been so successful in helping individuals climb out of poverty in Western Pennsylvania that it caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, who was on hand at USW headquarters in Pittsburgh on May 29 to present the seven members of the BTCP’s 19th class with their graduation certificates. Joining Perez were USW International President Leo W. Gerard, U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton, and Pittsburgh APRI President Sylvia Wilson, along with several past BTCP graduates and other local officials.

“Education is the great equalizer,” Perez told the group. “Education can punch your ticket to the middle class.”

Perez said the BTCP program falls directly in line with one of the top priorities of his Labor Department, as well as those of the Obama administration – making sure all people, regardless of their backgrounds, receive equal opportunities.

“Too many people don’t get a good shake in life, and giving people a second chance to get a good shake in life and be able to meet their dreams and aspirations is important,” Gerard said. “And it’s important for the Steelworkers that we are there to help them.”

The USW began its partnership with the APRI Education Fund and launched the BTCP program in 2009. The program has helped to train more than 200 workers since then.

New BTCP graduate Gary Holmes spoke on behalf of his classmates, telling the crowd that the group was grateful for the opportunity to remake themselves.

“I knew I wouldn’t get many more opportunities to change my life,” he said. “Thank you.”