Variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems are on the rise, making up an ever-growing portion of the HVAC market share in the United States. And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Local 49 is taking proactive steps to ensure VRF work is performed by SMART members.

On April 16, 2024, the local welcomed representatives from Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US (METUS) to its JATC to open the first-ever METUS VRF lab in the U.S.

METUS representatives joined Local 49 members and SMART leaders to officially open its new VRF lab.

“This collaboration between the Local 49 JATC, Trane and Mitsubishi showcases cutting-edge VRF technology and provides hands-on training for apprentices and industry professionals,” explained Local 49 Business Manager and Financial Secretary-Treasurer Isaiah Zemke. “Our curriculum is tailored to the latest advancements in VRF technology, ensuring industry relevance.”

VRF HVAC systems offer sophisticated, energy efficient heating and cooling by using a single outdoor condensing unit to provide hot and cool air through indoor units, utilizing heat pumps or heat recovery systems. With a greater national emphasis being placed on such environmentally beneficial and cost-effective technologies for commercial and multi-family residential buildings, the demand for VRF expertise will only continue to grow – and as of today, the only METUS VRF lab in America is in the Local 49 JATC. (Importantly, Zemke noted, METUS is New Mexico’s exclusive vendor for all the state’s air moving equipment.)  

Not only does that ensure Local 49’s apprentices have the skills needed to take on VRF work in New Mexico — the lab can also function as a de facto organizing tool, bringing nonunion workers in need of training to the one place where they are guaranteed to witness, without any interference, the union difference.

“It’s going to be the future of heating and air conditioning,” said Local 49 member Miguel Lopez of Butler Sheet Metal, who led apprentices in helping build the lab.

The journey to the April 16th ribbon-cutting had an unexpected origin. Local 49 President Chuck Lees is an avid fly fisherman. As it turns out, so is Trane Sales Representative Larry Anderson. Years ago, through their shared love of fly fishing, the two men forged a relationship that led to collaborations on testing and balancing work — and, some time later, the idea of a VRF lab. Thanks to the friendship between Lees, Anderson, Zemke and the rest of the local, labor and the manufacturer swiftly established a partnership, and METUS signed a memorandum of understanding with Local 49 for the JATC’s innovative new lab.

“Basically, Mitsubishi supplies all the VRF equipment and will replace it with any new, updated equipment,” Zemke explained. “Our obligation on the training side is to make sure that we install it and put in all the controls.”

For Local 49 members, the VRF lab couldn’t have come at a better time. The state of New Mexico is applying for a variety of grants to perform work related to lowering emissions and building a green economy. One example of that work: constructing and retrofitting multi-family housing. Thanks to its in-house VRF training, Local 49 anticipates being able to take on those jobs from start to finish.

“For low-income housing, they would do an assessment of the windows, the roof, the HVAC system,” Zemke explained. “So, it will be our testing and balancing contractors that can go do that assessment. And then we would have our contractors go and install these Mitsubishi split VRF systems.”

The new lab demonstrates how vital it is for labor unions to be active and forward-thinking when it comes to training, organizing and collaborating with management-side partners. Zemke views it as an example of “organizing the work” that will benefit all the entities involved.

“When all the parties come together — the training center, the labor union, the contractors — we can build great things together,” he concluded. “And that’s basically what we’ve done with this.”

On February 13, SM Local 104 (Northern California) hosted the California Republican Legislative Caucus at its Sacramento training facility, where the local provided a guided tour during an active training session, presented on the contractor-union partnership, and apprentice Anthony Gutierrez told the story of how his Local 104 membership changed his life. The local hopes to collaborate with the caucus to create opportunities for union members and working-class families in California moving forward, demonstrating SMART’s commitment to working with any union-friendly politicians to benefit members — regardless of party affiliation.

During National Apprenticeship Week — November 13–17, 2023 — the SMART Women’s Committee spotlighted apprentices from around the country.

Kacey Grierson, third-year apprentice, Local 206 (San Diego, Calif.)

“Joining the apprenticeship was life changing. It offered me a career with several different opportunities for growth.”

Alejandro Moreno, fifth-year apprentice, Local 206

“Thank you to sheet metal and my Local 206 members. Sheet metal has given me a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and joy. I am forever grateful to my teachers, mentors, foremen and every single person that has helped me grow and learn in the industry.”

Monty Stovall, recent graduate, Local 5 (East Tennessee)

“Going through the apprenticeship school helps you realize: ‘The amount of effort and work that I put into the program is what I’m going to get out of the program.’ Completing the program makes you feel proud that you have accomplished your goal. My goal is to be able to better provide for my family.”

Mathew Hunter, second-year apprentice, Local 20 (Indianapolis, Ind.); SMART Heroes Cohort 16 (Local 9, Colorado)

“I have thoroughly enjoyed my apprenticeship thus far, and I hope that the SMART Heroes program can continue to grow to bring more service men and women into the trade.”

Connor Tiernan, first-year apprentice, Local 17 (Boston, Mass.)

Connor started his career with a nonunion contractor and notices that with the union, people care more. Connor enjoys working with his hands but is also pursuing a degree in business management at Southern New Hampshire University. He has hopes of owning a company one day. When asked what advice he would give to other apprentices, Connor said: “This is a ridiculous opportunity! Push through!”

Jason Medeiros, first-year apprentice, Local 17

Jason previously worked for a residential nonunion contractor and says that with the union, the level of expectation is higher. Jason is a proud son to Portuguese immigrant parents and loves that he is able to provide for a family of three. He has hopes of becoming a foreman one day. When asked what advice he would give to other apprentices, Jason said: “Don’t let the bad days get you down, never say never, and Barry Ryan [his instructor] is the man.”

Stephen Halstead, first-year apprentice, Local 66 (Seattle, Wash.)

“I have never felt like I had a career until I joined the sheet metal apprenticeship. It has given me a purpose, a plan and a future.”

Stacy Ironside, second-year apprentice, Local 18 (Wisconsin)

“I am in the career and the trade that I was meant to be in.”

Roselyn Soto, second-year apprentice, Local 105 (Los Angeles, Calif.)

“I just started my career, so I am focused on putting in all the effort, dedication, and hard work to journey out and master my trade.”

From September 12–14, during the Ontario Sheet Metal Workers’ and Roofers’ Conference, apprentices from nine different local unions gathered in Peterborough, Ontario, for the 50th annual Ontario Sheet Metal Workers Apprenticeship Competition. The challenge? Building copper replicas of the iconic Peterborough Lift Lock.

“It’s a great opportunity to get some new skills and meet some new people, and it’s a lot of fun,” said Local 537 (Hamilton, Ontario) apprentice Mackenzie Johnston.

Along with the conference and apprenticeship competition, SMART Army Canada was out in force: Dozens of members took to the streets for a cleanup of the Otonabee River and nearby Millennium Park, helping preserve Canada’s natural beauty and public spaces for the local community.


  • First place: Kevin Berkmortel, Local 473 (London, Ontario)
  • Second place: Jamie Weir, Local 30 (Toronto, Ontario)
  • Third place: Aaron Woolley, Local 397 (Thunder Bay, Ontario)
  • Fourth place: Jacob Wiebe, Local 235 (Windsor, Ontario)
  • Fifth place: Austin Ducedre, Local 235 (Windsor, Ontario)
  • Congeniality award: Antonio Iezzi, Local 30 (Toronto, Ontario)

North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) hosted the Mikva Challenge’s annual “Democracy is a Verb!” celebratory reception on Sunday, April 23 in Washington, DC. During the reception, Mikva Challenge — whose mission is “to develop youth to be empowered, informed, and active citizens who will promote a just and equitable society” — honored former SMART General President Joe Sellers with the organization’s Legacy Award, recognizing his contributions to and support for the program and local communities.

Sean McGarvey, president of NABTU, introduced Sellers. “Joe is very involved in apprenticeship and training, since back at Local 19. Some of the progressive programs he put together at SMART have been fantastic.” He added that Sellers “is like a steady rock. He’s always there. He’s always there with you. He’s been there for SMART members, and he extended that to groups like Mikva.”

Sellers then took the stage, telling Mikva Challenge: “Your civic engagement is unmatched, and the issues you’re working on are vitally important to not only your neighborhood but our country. Listening to what you do enthused me to make a difference in the way you’re making a difference.”

Founded in 1998, the Mikva Challenge began as a small pilot program with an all-volunteer staff in four Chicago schools; 23 years later, Mikva has grown to serve over 17 states, 3,200 teachers and 135,000 students annually. According to the organization’s website, Mikva has spent the last two decades developing an education model based on the principles that: 1. Youth voice matters; 2. Youth are experts on the issues that affect them; 3. Our communities and schools are stronger when youth leaders are involved in all aspects of civic life.

“I am impressed with how you create goals and you follow those goals with action plans,” Sellers remarked to reception attendees. “And there is nothing that gets me more jazzed up than action plans!”

The Mikva Challenge provides schools with strategies and tools to engage young people in high quality, student-centered learning about the democratic process — an objective that aligns with the way SMART provides state-of-the-art training to apprentices while encouraging members to engage with their local union. Mikva’s programs are designed to develop social and emotional skills, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. The organization also focuses on improving school and community culture while enhancing teacher effectiveness through inquiry-driven, project-based study, creating opportunities for engaging in democracy.

Sellers concluded his remarks by addressing Mikva students.

“Make sure you understand about our apprenticeship programs,” he said. “Our goals are aligned with yours, and with an apprenticeship you can go back and harness your power as a union member to amplify your voice.”

WATCH: “I am very excited about the big jobs that are coming up. We have many opportunities that they offer for those who are willing to work, work hard and learn new skills.”

North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) hosted an event titled “Meeting the Moment” on Thursday, March 30 in Columbus, Ohio. The event, part of NABTU’s Opportunity Pipeline series, featured NABTU President Sean McGarvey, SMART Local 24 (southern Ohio) member McKenzie Quinn, representatives from the Ohio governor’s office, state politicians from both sides of the aisle, local union workers and more, all talking about one thing: $200 billion worth of megaprojects breaking ground in Ohio.

“Join us in rebuilding America and join us in establishing your place in the middle class,” McGarvey said at the event, addressing the union tradespeople of the future. “… We look forward to building this together as a team, as a community for the benefit of all in our country.”

As a result of massive investment and new megaprojects from companies like Intel, Honda and more – spurred in part by federal legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act – the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council estimates that more than 115,000 union workers will work full time from 2023 to 2025. That enormous number of jobs opens a huge window of opportunity for SMART sheet metal workers, both current and future members.

McKenzie Quinn (front row, second from right) with the leadership of Local 24.

“In Columbus right now, we have a lot of exciting upcoming projects,” Local 24 journeyperson Quinn said. “We have chip factories, data centers, electric vehicle battery plants, and this is going to bring hundreds of good-paying jobs in the next few years.”

That not only means family-sustaining jobs for Ohio SMART members – it creates a golden opportunity for local unions to recruit, organize and grow their market share.

“We need to do our best to continue recruiting people from every background,” Quinn noted. “This opportunity is available to everyone.

Megaprojects, union apprenticeship programs create opportunity for all

Multiple speakers at Thursday’s event testified to the power of a union apprenticeship when it comes to lifting workers up, no matter their background or identity. Year after year, the statistics demonstrate that unions reduce economic disparity for women, people of color and other members of historically marginalized communities. By taking advantage of megaprojects and bringing more workers into the unionized trade, SMART locals can do more than fortify their strength – they can create real opportunity for all.

“Joining a union has given me safety and security in my job and safety from discrimination, not only with wages but also gender-based discrimination,” Quinn said. “This is a great chance for everybody, including women and minorities, to get into the trades and have a great career.”

Watch further coverage of the event here.

Megaprojects in the News

On September 23, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) announced a final rule to rescind the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP), and will instead direct the department’s resources toward support of registered apprenticeships. The DOL issued this final rule after reviewing IRAPs as required by Executive Order 14016, in which the current president directed federal agencies to consider rescinding “any orders, rules, regulations, guidelines, or policies” implemented by the previous president’s Executive Order 13801, which promoted IRAPs and would have undermined union registered apprenticeship programs such as those in the sheet metal industry.

SMART General President Joseph Sellers commented in response that “SMART commends the Department of Labor for following through on President Biden’s executive order and recognizing the IRAP initiative for what it was: a bad faith attempt by anti-union contractors and politicians to undermine high-quality union apprenticeship programs and replace them with a watered-down system of certifications.” GP Sellers added that “by rescinding IRAPs and investing instead in registered apprenticeship programs, the Department of Labor has ruled in favor of workers and their ability to find good, union jobs and reliable pathways to the middle class.”

The Final Rule was published in the Federal Register on September 26, 2022 and will go into effect on November 25, 2022. Beginning on the effective date, DOL will no longer recognize Standards Recognition Entities (SREs) or IRAPs.