April 17, 2021

EISLEY MCKAY OWES A LOT TO THE JOURNEYPERSON who showed him the ropes when he was a first-year plumbing apprentice.

“She explains processes, tools and tricks of the trade – she is a great teacher,” he says.

But not only did she teach him a lot about the trade, she also happens to have raised him.

“He was my apprentice,” beams Raven Hillenbrand, Eisley’s mom. “I was allowed to mentor him on the job. I watched him grown and develop his skills, his confidence and ability to do his job.”

And Eisley isn’t the only plumber in the family: Hillenbrand’s daughter, Jasmine McKay, is also a plumbing apprentice. Both brother and sister followed in their mom’s bootsteps, joining the United Association of Journeymen & Apprentices of the Plumbing & Pipefitting Industry (UA) Local 170. It’s easy to see why.

“They witnessed firsthand what having a career that you truly enjoy offers, the ability to not only survive but thrive if you are willing to work hard,” says Hillenbrand. “They saw the financial rewards that a trade brings.”

When Eisley and Jasmine were young, Hillenbrand was a single mom trying to make ends meet. She learned about a Women in Trades program being offered at the UA Piping Industry College of B.C. at the time that offered child care and transportation to and from the school, so she decided to check it out.

More than a decade later, Hillenbrand is a Red Seal plumber/ class B gasfitter whose children aspire to be just like her.

“When other moms put on office or business clothes for work, mine wore steel-toed boots and work gear,” recalled Jasmine of her childhood. “She works hard and she’s good at her job. She’s a tradeswoman and I’m pretty proud of that.”

Although Eisley was Hillenbrand’s apprentice, Jasmine has also benefited from the wealth of knowledge her mom offers.

“If I become overwhelmed, I’m in the best position because I have built-in support at home. I’ll take a break from training, give it some thought and start again. If when I can’t figure it out or need help, she shows me what I need to learn.”

Eisley and Jasmine have always been proud of their mom, but they’re even more in awe of her now that they’ve faced some of the same challenges that come with learning a trade, without the added stress of supporting two little kids.

“Growing up with my mom working in her trade, I saw all the work that went into it, the hours, the balance between work and home. My mom worked hard developing her trade, and she was able to look after my sister and I,” said Eisley. The Hillenbrand-McKays aren’t the only family whose talent for the skilled trades spans more than a generation. The Zdrilics – Leo Zdrilic, his son Brian, and his grandson Brandon – all became millwrights, though it wasn’t always a straight path.

Leo Zdrilic joined the Millwrights Local 2736 in the early ’60s and worked all over B.C. and Western Canada until he passed away in 1980. Despite Leo’s successful career as a millwright, son Brian was initially attracted to the electrical trade, and took a pre-apprenticeship course after high school en route to becoming an electrician. But apprentices were not exactly sought after back in the day – it was the late ’70s – and so young Brian “got a job winding motors in a shitty place.”

Brian suspects his dad nudged the millwright business manager at the time to give his disillusioned son a call.

“As I was working in this sweat shop, I got a call from the business manager asking how I was doing,” remembers Brian. “I told him the union wasn’t hiring right now so I took a job at a sweat shop. He asked if I wanted to try the millwright route instead and I said, ‘Tell me what I must do.’”

Ultimately, Brian followed in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one, and so did Brandon, both of them inheriting the senior Zdrilic’s strong belief in trade unionism.

“What can I say? Three generations of my family have been supported by the union.”

When Brian was 16, he was fired from Fields department store for trying to organize the warehouse workers at his summer job.

“I saw so much injustice and racism that I felt I had to do something,” he said.

Brian’s commitment to the labour movement crystalized after his dad was diagnosed with cancer. Three days before his father passed on, Brian went to visit him at the hospital. He entered his dad’s room to find him surrounded by two nurses and a doctor who were trying to subdue him.

“He was telling them that there was a union meeting tonight and that he had to go. I was shocked because by that time, with the disease and all the cocktails they were giving him, he could barely recognize his own family but somehow he knew there was a meeting that night.

“After he passed, I thought wow, what did this union mean to him? I realized that coming to Canada in 1958 from former Yugoslavia, a corrupt communist country that is now independent Croatia, with $8 in his pocket, that the union saved him and his family and he would never forget that. It was not just a job, it was a way of life where people support one another and work for the common good.”

Brian spent the next 40 years with the Millwrights Local 2736, retiring as business manager in 2019. So what was that like for Brandon?

“I can tell you that growing up with a union rep for a parent was crazy. I don’t know how my mom put up with it,” laughs Brandon.

Family time was constantly punctuated by the ringing of Brian’s cellphone, frequently summoning him to the office, or parts further afield.

“One of my earliest memories of his work was when he told us, ‘Pack your bags, there’s an emergency and we’re going out of town.’ A few hours later, I was on my dad’s shoulders being carried around a picket line in Port Alberni.”

The emergency was a pivotal moment in labour history. Between the summer of 1994 and early 1995, Port Alberni was conflict central as MacMillan Bloedel threw down the gauntlet with plans to bring open shop contractors onto the site of its new mill to work alongside union members, thus waiving contractual affiliation clauses. The BC Building Trades, under president Len Werden at the time, with support from the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union and the BC Federation of Labour, entered a protracted dispute that included confrontations, picket lines, arrests, labour board hearings and court action, ultimately culminating in Building Trades unions losing the exclusive right to the work. Brian was among the picketers arrested.

“I watched throughout my entire life how the union movement was not just a job for my father – he lived and breathed it,” said Brandon.

Like Brian, Brandon’s path had a detour or two. He contemplated a career in computer assisted drafting, the coast guard and the military, but he excelled at metal fabrication and even earned a $2,500 scholarship. He completed his Red Seal in three years and after 10 years in the trade, he started his own company and he’s a union contractor, of course.

“Following in his footsteps was more than just becoming a millwright,” says Brandon. “It was a chance to learn a trade, build a career, be part of a strong and passionate local and give back to the union that has provided for my family for three generations.”

By Corry Anderson-Fennell
Director of Communications