Looking back over his decades at Sheet Metal Workers Local 27 in Central and Southern New Jersey, Andy Caccholi said that July 5, 1973, remains a very important day to him — one he’ll never forget. After spending a few years after high school working as a helper and production worker in the trades, on that summer Thursday he showed up at the local’s union hall to start his apprenticeship.
While he didn’t imagine himself rising to the position of president and business manager back then, he did gravitate toward the training end of the industry right away. He served as shop steward, shop foreman and instructor, and then took on the role of training coordinator in 1990. After nearly a quarter-century in that position, he turned in his retirement paperwork.
That was in 2014. His planned retirement that August never materialized, as members called him back into action after Local 27’s business manager, Joe Sykes, lost his battle with cancer. Caccholi was appointed to the position of president and business manager on May 1, 2014, and then elected to two subsequent terms.
Over the years, Caccholi also served as chairman for the annuity, education, health and welfare and the supplemental unemployment funds. He said that, along with these varied responsibilities, the time he spent as training coordinator helped prepare him for the local’s top leadership role.
“Because of the length of time I held that position, I worked under two business managers, which gave me some insight into the job,” Caccholi stated.
Retirement has given Caccholi a moment to reflect on how the industry has changed over the nearly half-century since he began his apprenticeship. New technology has allowed more coordination and mechanization of tasks, resulting in a broadening of the scope of work for the average worker. Today, union representatives continue to find new and emerging markets for unionized sheet metal workers.
“What used to take many men in the shop and field has now been reduced substantially due to the computer age,” Caccholi said. “So those jobs have been displaced and the workers have moved out into other areas. We branched out more into the service end of things, testing and balancing, drafting and welding.”
Caccholi has also seen significant changes in Local 27 during his tenure, most recently the addition of a testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) lab accredited by the International Training Institute (ITI). The new lab is incorporated into the 10,000-square-foot training center and has all the ductwork and equipment necessary to run members through the various parts of a hands-on practical examination for certification in the TAB field. The first exam at Local 27’s new lab took place in late January.
While the plan for the new lab was in the works for many years, Caccholi gives full credit on its completion to Training Coordinator John Espinos.
“It started when I was training coordinator, but John was the guy who took the ball and got it across the line, and I really appreciate what he’s done,” he said.
The biggest challenge Caccholi said he faced during his time as business manager was the ongoing contract negotiations to ensure members fair pay, health care benefits and the annuity and pension funds. The responsibility to fight for sheet metal workers weighed heavily on him, as he knew how important these things are to individual members.
“The members want a fair raise, and we’re charged with bringing it back to them. There’s pressure from all sides at every negotiation, and it’s never ending,” Caccholi recalled.
By delaying his retirement from 2014 until 2021, Caccholi also found himself in charge of Local 27 during the upheaval the COVID-19 pandemic caused. He said the fact that everyone he works with was conscientious and took it as a serious issue really helped things run smoothly through this unprecedented time. At the start of the pandemic, Local 27’s leadership issued an order of business for the training center and the union, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We were very strict in mandating that,” Caccholi said. “We had to shut down the training center for two weeks, and members had to make appointments to come to the office — something they’d never had to do previously.”
Having taught and mentored so many apprentices over the years, Caccholi can easily summarize his recipe for success in the industry. He tells members to “take any and all training classes available, get up to speed with the latest technology, attend union meetings regularly and pay attention to what’s going on around you.”
Tom De Bartolo has taken over as president and business manager of Local 27, and Caccholi was pleased to say that when he took the appointment to the executive board it was approved unanimously. Caccholi said he has considered De Bartolo a good friend for many years, and, in fact, De Bartolo’s father was the business agent for Local 27 back in the early 1970s when he apprenticed.
Having multiple generations in the same union, even the same local, is not uncommon in the sheet metal industry. Caccholi was the first in his family to apprentice, but he has two nephews and a son-in-law who now belong to Local 27.
Caccholi admitted he’ll need some time to figure out where he wants to go from here. At 72, he said he never really dreamed he’d work this long, but now retirement represents a huge adjustment. He has plans for a few small vacation trips, but otherwise is just getting settled. He expressed enormous gratitude to the industry and Local 27, and said he’d be willing to help out if they needed him in the future.
“Going into sheet metal was the biggest decision in my life, other than choosing my wife and how many children we were going to have,” he said. “This industry has given me everything I have right now, plus the ability to retire with dignity.”