Swipe long enough and you were bound to find 'em.
Somewhere between “founder at tech company” and graduate student at Temple University was journeyman plumber at Local 690. And there was another, after the baristas, consultants, and (a favorite job title) “hustlers”: a tile setter at Local 1 Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Philadelphia. One guy just listed Glaziers Local Union 252, as if it spoke for itself.
They say the labor movement is dying. They must have never gone deep on Tinder.
On a platform where you get one big photo and just a few lines to prove your desirability, every word counts.
That men in the building trades were using their precious space to proclaim their Philly locals was saying something, I was sure. But what exactly? And, in the end, did it matter to the people they were trying to attract?
As The Inquirer’s labor reporter, I wanted to know. So I went undercover.
A word on the investigative process: Reporting on Tinder is tricky.
My aim was to be up front. But, because Tinder won’t allow you to message anyone unless you both “like” each other, I also needed to attract matches. So I chose a come-hither photo and kept my bio ethically sound: “Reporter on duty.”
Then, because I couldn’t just filter for union members or write “building trades to the front,” I had to swipe. A lot. Which led to the inevitable muscle-memory of swiping left. Which led to the accidental rejection of a United Brotherhood of Carpenters profile, which led to one delirious hour later looking for just one more union guy...
Lastly, timing was important. If I didn’t message someone immediately after matching, I would have to undo some things, like this:
Of course, there were guys (usually, it should be noted, from electricians union Local 98) who trolled: Is this really what passes for a story at The Inquirer these days? Others tried to parlay the interview into a date, or at least a few more pics.
But the guys who did talk to me — stagehands, electricians, operating engineers — most of them unwilling to let me print their names, told me this: It was a pride thing. “Going from non union to union, you realize you really earned something,” one electrician said. “You bust your ass for it.”
Listing their local served a practical purpose — it was the most accurate way to describe their job because they didn’t have one consistent employer — but others said it might suggest they were a catch.
“I always grew up hearing the word union and thought it pretty much meant you’d be taken care of,” said Evan Sanders, who had recently left Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 for the Drywall Finishers Local 1955, whose profile read “union steel worker." He’s alluding to the fact that trade union members are paid well, have good health-care benefits, and get that most elusive of perks among young people these days: a pension.
Stephanie Tong, a communications professor at Wayne State University who studies online dating, said Sanders was sending a “courtship signal.” He’s saying, “Look at me. I’m a provider,” she said.
Another courtship signal: Matt Bennett, a longtime member of the Laborers, said he included his union on his profile because in Philly, nonunion is usually more “small time.”
So it’s showing that you’re legit?
He responded with a big-grinning emoji.
Do you think it helps you get dates?
“I don’t think it has done anything for me.”
Bennett, 30, was touching on one of the difficulties of dating apps. You might think you’re communicating one thing, with a photo or job title or even your height, but that might not be how the reader registers it. As one operating engineer told me, “99% on here don’t even know what the union is, anyway.” Tong said that sounded as if these guys were interested in presenting “their authentic identity,” even if others didn’t get it.
“It’s rather sophisticated,” said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and chief scientific adviser to Match.com. Instead of saying they make a good living, which could be seen as bragging or in bad taste, they’re doing so in code.
To a group of dating-app users, that code seemed, instead, to refer to a certain kind of politics: Said Deborah Rose, who runs an “alternative sex collective”: “I am way more likely to [have sex with] someone if I find out they stand with their union and believe in collective power.” Amanda McIllmurray, a 26-year-old political organizer, said she’d be more likely to swipe right on a union profile because she had more in common with working-class people. She’d assume those men had “more of a sense of class struggle.”
But another, a 33-year-old administrative assistant named Camilla, said that it wouldn’t affect how she swiped “because it’s not a strong enough proxy for values or political views.”
“Having grown up in a blue-collar union family, I learned early just because you belong in a union does not mean that you may not hold some dubious political points of view,” she said.
Joe Mathis didn’t know much about this Tinder business, but he implicitly understood the messaging.
“I don’t tell people I’m an ironworker,” he said. “I say I’m an ironworker Local 401.”
Unions are brotherhoods, said the 64-year-old, “especially mine.” That’s partly because to get in, you have to complete a grueling four-year apprenticeship. Union membership is a badge of honor. “Only one in a thousand can do it," Mathis said. "A lot of good men can’t walk the iron.” (The flip side is that sometimes these unions get criticized for actively keeping others out.)
Your local is built into your identity, said Ed Harkins, political director for the Boilermakers Local 13, who also, he made clear, has never been on Tinder. Members wear their membership on their sleeve, literally: on their T-shirts, in their email addresses, as their Facebook cover photos. It’s like a family, and often, it is their family: Harkins is a third-generation union worker, Mathis’ three sons are in Local 401. As Tony Wigglesworth, who runs a labor management organization, put it, “It just pervades their entire life.”
It transmits a competitive nature, too, Harkins said, as locals like to claim their superiority over other locals across the country, especially unions in the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest. That checked out with Mathis, who boasted that Local 401 always comes home with the trophy at the annual national Ironworkers competition. (It also might explain this as a regional quirk of hetero Tinder.)
The Tinder phenomenon also highlights a difference between the trades and other types of unions: Most unions are organized by workplace, but the trades are organized by skill and get work through their union’s hiring hall, leading them to identify more closely with their union than one employer, Harkins said. Despite the number of security guards and teachers on Tinder, for instance, you don’t see them marketing “SEIU” or “AFT” on their profile.
Barbara Rahke, former executive director of PhilaPOSH, a workplace safety organization that works closely with the trades, also noted: “There’s something very manly about being in the trades, which they may feel is attractive."
The question, though, remained: Does it work?
When I checked in with Sanders, the drywall finisher, a few months after our interview, he told me he was still on Tinder.
“Forever alone," he said, along with a GIF of SpongeBob crying. But yeah, I could use his name for this article, he allowed.