Being a member of Trade Show Carpenters Local 491 of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council is about being part of a team that emphasizes camaraderie and a positive culture that often feels like a family.

For Juaquin Duff, however, it actually is family. He is a second-generation member of Local 491, though he said he never expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, John, who spent 16 years with the union as a shop steward and rigger before retiring in 2017.

“Honestly I didn’t see it. I saw it as an opportunity to sustain myself while I got my own business off the ground,” said Duff, who will celebrate 20 years with Local 491 in April 2024. “It’s been a cool ride. It’s about passion coupled with my work ethic. The start-to-finish results of what we do is fulfilling. It feels like you accomplished something. It’s tangible.”

He describes being in the union as belonging to a larger work family, one that has provided a stable income, opportunities to grow and new challenges on a daily basis. Many members of Local 491 are second-generation carpenters, according to Duff.

“My father believed in doing what was right for his brothers and sisters,” said Duff. “He wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion and be a disruptor, in a good way, to negotiate for fair contracts.”

Duff serves as a council representative for the EAS Regional Council of Carpenters and business agent for Local 491. It’s one of many positions he’s held while learning the trade. He’s also taken on new responsibilities and earned several promotions during his two decades with the union.

Duff began his career working for several different contractors before settling at union contractor The Freeman Co. under Mike Jones, the current president of the Trade Show Contractors Association, for almost nine years. Duff worked trade shows to start, then became a warehouse supervisor before moving into business development.

Jones, the director of operations at Freeman, and Duff continue to work closely as the union has been stepping up recruiting efforts to help contractors deal with an influx of post-COVID work. Demand is up significantly for trade show carpenters in response to an increase in conventions, conferences and other in-person events. The Washington Convention Center, as one example, is essentially sold out for the next three years.

“Juaquin does an excellent job of recognizing the needs,” said Jones. “Everyone is looking for more help. We need more labor.”

At the same time, mentoring is a passion for Duff, so he jumped at the opportunity to become an instructor at the union’s training school. That opportunity came from Mike Hubbard, whom Duff calls a mentor. Hubbard, now retired, had served as a union officer and on the executive board during his tenure as well as being an instructor, and saw Duff as an excellent teacher and mentor in his own right.

For several years, Duff would spend four months a year as a training school instructor for apprentices and eight months working trade shows, a mix of responsibilities he embraced. He continues to teach journeypersons looking to upgrade their skills, while also being the liaison between the union and contractors, including Freeman, who employ union members.

In September 2021 Duff became business agent for Local 491, his current role.

Duff said he looks forward to growing union membership and continuing to teach.

“I’m passionate about the opportunity Local 491 provides,” he said. “It’s a good niche for people to build a great career, and not enough people know about it. We’ll always need talented carpenters. This isn’t a job where technology can replace the people.”