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Workforce leader Michael Sabitoni ’87 is committed to union labor in Rhode Island
July 2, 2012
As president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, Michael F. Sabitoni ’87 represents 10,000 tradesmen in 15 unions that include laborers, electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, iron workers, painters and masons.
“We’ve built every highway, road and bridge, every major building of any capacity in 39 cities and towns,” Sabitoni said. “Our tradesmen pretty much build and maintain this state, so it’s a significant responsibility [that I have.]”
Sabitoni also is chair of the Rhode Island Laborers’ pension, annuity and health and welfare funds. He is a trustee on the New England Laborers’ Training Trust Fund, the New England Laborers’ Labor-Management Cooperation Trust, and the New England Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund.
His responsibilities include overseeing the administrative functions of Laborers Local Union 271 as its business manager, “pursuing legislative policies that put tradesmen and women to work building and rebuilding the state of Rhode Island,” negotiating contracts and grievances, and meeting with construction company owners and real estate developers.
“These are 24/7 jobs,” he said, adding that his workweek is about 70 hours long. “Even when you’re not at work, certain responsibilities are always on your mind. You’re never really off the clock because so many working families depend on the decisions you make.”
Sabitoni also finds time to serve on the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp. Board, the governor’s Career Pathways Workforce Board, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO executive committee and as a council member of the state’s Building Futures outreach program, which helps find apprenticeships for inner-city minorities.
“That’s something that we’re extremely proud of,” Sabitoni said, “the diversification of the building trades through that program. Without it, many participants probably wouldn’t have gotten an opportunity to come into the trades and have a career in construction.”
Sabitoni’s commitment to union labor runs deep, with many of his family members before him having worked in the construction trade. He followed in the footsteps of his late uncle, Armando V. Sabitoni, and his cousin Armand E. Sabitoni, general secretary-treasurer of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
“I think it’s kind of like anything else,” Sabitoni said. “Sometimes you see a family where there’s a big group that enters the military or the police department … my family has been in the laborers’ union for three generations and they instilled in me the responsibility of what it means to be a union member and a trade unionist.”
What it means, Sabitoni said, is a sense of camaraderie. His favorite example:
“When 9/11 happened, most of those first responders other than rescuers were our brothers and sisters of the New York building trades,” Sabitoni said. “Soon after, our brothers and sisters from building trade councils from all over the country just bused in and volunteered to do whatever they could.”
He added, “And again after Hurricane Katrina, local unions in Louisiana and Mississippi requested volunteers and many from this local went down … I think that’s something that’s unique to the labor movement that’s still alive: the brotherhood and sisterhood among members. We can all get there together.”
Sabitoni has spent most of his life in the construction trade and the union, beginning as a teenager working construction jobs during the summer to pay for his education at the Community College of Rhode Island.
A lifelong Johnston resident, Sabitoni graduated from Johnston High School in 1985 and came to CCRI that fall.
“I was a little indecisive on what I wanted to do but I knew that higher education was important so it was a natural step to go to CCRI,” he said.
An avid basketball player, Sabitoni played for the Knights in both of his years at CCRI. He played for Head Coach Vin Cullen and Assistant Coach Charlie Wilkes, both veritable institutions at CCRI, on a team that was formidable if not quite championship-level.
“We were OK but we didn’t have any height,” Sabitoni said. “We won some tough games. We were competitive but when you have the likes of Coach Wilkes and Coach Cullen you are always competitive.”
Cullen remembers Sabitoni as “… full of energy, a strong kid. We want our kids to know exactly what their role is on the court and he was a very good role player for us.”
Cullen added, “He was a hard-working, tough, determined player and we were very fortunate to have him.”
Practices took place immediately after school and Sabitoni and the other players often would stay after for an additional two or three hours playing pickup games.
“It was a fun part of my life,” he said, “I look back on it quite often.”
Academically, Sabitoni focused on accounting but switched to marketing in his second year.
“That really highlights the need for quality public education,” Sabitoni said. “There are a lot of kids like me who need that extra year or two to home in on what they want to do. Now more than ever I think it’s important.”
Sabitoni stayed for an extra semester at CCRI and then transferred to Bryant University in spring 1988. He took night classes there for four years while working full-time in construction during the day.
He first joined Rhode Island’s Construction and General Laborers’ Local Union 271 in 1988 and steadily rose both in the construction trade and within the union. He became a steward, a foreman and then a general foreman before becoming a regional organizer for New England Laborers’.
After a year in this position, he became a construction market representative, soliciting construction contractors to bid on projects within New England.
In 2003, he was appointed as a field representative for Laborers Local Union 271 and, in 2005, was elected business manager.
“That brought me full circle,” he said. “I worked my way up to working for the international and then came back to the local union … Starting as a laborer and going to that position means I ran the whole gamut.”
Sabitoni said his career arc also has made him appreciate his education.
“As I’ve gotten more administration duties, that extra higher learning has helped me adapt from a construction site to an administrative post and all the responsibilities that come along with it,” he said.
“I see higher education having a key role as we train the workforce for the future and I commend President Di Pasquale, the Alumni Association, and all the faculty and staff for the job that they do preparing young people in the state of Rhode Island to meet the future workforce needs.”
Sabitoni resides in Johnston with his wife, Joyce, and three sons, Michael, Matthew and Cameron.