Getting to FI from a Union Manufacturing job, part I (the good)

21077676_10155441108767420_1131869097689509169_nHey Smidlapper,  have you ever wondered about the gravy train employment of a member of an Auto Worker’s Union or a Steel Worker?  I’ll tell you about my experience for some perspective and all about the golden handcuffs that come with it.

I was just a bachelor’s level chemist when I got to Buffalo in 2002.  I had a series of decent paying salaried positions along with a mini-retirement and a couple of good manufacturing problems solved in my pocket.  I had just met the future Mrs. Smidlap who had just bought an enormous stone house in a beat up rust belt city (more on home ownership later).  So rather than continuing making industrial silver compounds across the state and seeing one another when we could I decided to take the plunge and just try and find work in the B-lo.  I has lived here before and knew there was a large chemical industry at one time and even had a few interviews before I made the move.  A year or two went by and I did a bunch of temporary work and then a stint as a brass factory supervisor (brassmaster), and a chemist at a fly-by-night nutraceutical maker.  Those were really crappy jobs and by the time we were hitched up and finished a sonoma valley honeymoon i was unemployed again.  We were living off MB’s salary as a music business mover and shaker which really let us know it wasn’t too bad living off one income, except for the boredom of being home all the time.

The whole time I was looking nationally for jobs and went on some interviews but we really didn’t want to leave MB’s employer to whom she was loyal.  Then an employment agency called and said they had a contract position at Big Brother Corp if I was interested.  The interview took 5 minutes and they told me about the swing shift and the pay rate and the type of work and I accepted.  I figured I would try it out while I kept looking for a normal day job on salary.  You see, BBC is one of those huge conglomerates known to write a decent check and offer good benefits and all that kind of stuff.  I did the assignment for 9 months and summer of 2005 they hired me permanently as a lab analyst, where I was overqualified.

The Good

  • The pay is unusually good for the qualifications required.  It was much higher than I ever got in prestige salaried Chemist positions.  It was in short order I paid off any consumer debts and Mrs. Smidlap was never one for taking on “shoppy” kinds of debt so that just left us with my big student loan balance and the cheap mortgage on our big ass house.  I didn’t get very spendy but I did buy a new bicycle for about 500 clams which I have ridden about 50 miles the past 12 years (well meaning but bad purchase).  The upside of the bicycle is that there is nothing wrong with it and I could use it any time.  MB bought her own bike this past summer the right way, at a thrift market for 40 bucks.
  • The higher pay rate got us looking at an opportunity to get on the right side of the ledger and examine the things we liked to do.  We built up a large emergency fund pretty quickly which sits in savings and we have never touched.  Then we started a “bucket” system where we funded 3 buckets every paycheck:  vacation/gift/home repair, Roth IRA’s (the gift of tax free income in retirement), and tax as our taxes weren’t in escrow.  I added 3 more columns for my overtime dough, MB’s painting income, and some cash we keep around.  MB is a fantastic artist and we wanted to keep these funds separate as the incomes were irregular and we didn’t want to count on them from month to month.
  • The benefits were pretty good.  I had a pension that accrues until 2018 when it goes away, but it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye and I anticipate BBC offering to buy that out in the next year or two so I can put it straight to an IRA.  Health insurance and employee match are standard and excellent.  In other words, they’re everything you would expect from a soul-sucking conglomerate.  This is the bargain I made to work beneath my qualifications for a whle:  money.
  • The overtime (mostly voluntary and occasionally mandatory) is the greatest side hustle you can have.  It was 1.5 times during the week and double time on Sunday if you worked 7 straight days.  That was such a good motivator I must have knocked out 40k in student loans and about 60k in mortgage in 6 years while still living off our regular pay and having a good time.  I even turned down a bunch of opportunities to work even more to try and achieve some balance of enjoying life.  It’s not like I was breaking rocks, just testing plastic and putting in the long hours.
  • There is a seniority system, which is good and bad for me.  When the economy took a dump in 2009 we cut a bunch of jobs and people got laid off.  The upshot of that is that with a little seniority I got booted from the lab to the factory floor (bad part) but the factory floor jobs weren’t that bad and paid well and I kept making money and investing during generational lows in the stock market (buy low!).  This happened 3 times where I had to work production but I made some good pals doing it and made some lemonade from the lemons.  I always ended up back in the higher paying lab role after no more than a year or so.  i’ll give you the downside to the seniority system in part II (the bad).

So, the bucket system for funds we knew we were going to spend was the start of our financial independence (FI) travels.  We always knew that if something happened like a layoff (MB lost her job 6 months ago) we could adjust down the vacation category and we did that and life didn’t change much at all, so much that we might leave it lower.  In the meantime I was reading everything I could about saving and investing and paid off all the reckless spending fun of my youth (I get to keep the crazy memories of all that).  I’m sure there are others but that’s some of the good that comes with this kind of work.

Quote of the Week

When you’ve won the game, stop playing.

Free Activity of the Week

Dog Walking.  I walk my little boxer to a fantastic park about 1.25 miles from our house.  Often the other dog owners will ask me if we’ve been to this dog park of that one.  I tell them I prefer not to drive in that car in order to take a walk if i don’t have to.  Just go out the front door and start walking.  That works for running too.

This Week

  • They started working on replacing our roof yesterday.  More to come on this.
  • We sold one item on Ebay in our quest to de-clutter.  I sold my drums to Tequila Mick from NOLA.  Now he has to just come get them.
  • I shredded about 50 pounds of junk mail so lets call it a good week for accountability.
  • Had a great time seeing Pipps and TM in the big sleazy.  It’s always good to be back and drink Sazeracs, eat raw oysters and All that Jazz poboys, and mostly see old friends.


As always, feel free to comment as you wish.  Blast away, I can take it.

What do you think? You must think something. This is the place to let it fly or just say hello.