In Georgia, so-called “right-to-work” laws make it hard for unions to organize and retain members, particularly when language barriers in the workplace already present challenges. Despite such obstacles, though, SMART Local 85 (Atlanta, Ga.) has made big inroads at Price Industries, where approximately 70% of the workforce speaks Vietnamese as a first language.

“A new approach to internal organizing has been key to this success,” said SMART Director of Production Workers Dave Goodspeed.

“We were able to hire — from our own ranks — a Vietnamese speaker, Donson Ha,” Goodspeed explained, “and he’s a firecracker.”

Anti-union right-to-work laws allow members to opt out of paying union dues, making the inability to communicate effectively to an entire workforce potentially devastating to both workers and local unions. That was especially true at Price in Georgia: Local 85 was unable to convey the union difference and best represent its members, and workers were cautious about seeking representation from those they literally couldn’t understand.

“For a long time, Price Industries has been a hard nut to crack in terms of signing new members, primarily because Price has made a practice of hiring so many different nationalities,” Goodspeed said.

“They have people who speak English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Burmese, Cambodian, and the largest population of workers down there — probably 50% — are Vietnamese,” added SMART International Production Organizer Sharon Walker.

Until recently, only around 20–25% of Price workers had signed up with the union, Walker said, and the lack of representation had material consequences. One example: The company would post mandatory overtime notices to its bulletin boards in English exclusively, making it difficult for non-English-speaking workers who may have missed the announcement from their shop lead to know what was required of them. And in the event that a worker who didn’t speak English faced discipline, they often didn’t know how to go to their union for help.

“I didn’t know about unions until I met Sharon, and she explained to me … what a union is,” said Vietnamese-speaking Shop Steward Rich Manh Bui.

“Before, nobody represented them, and that’s why Vietnamese [workers] didn’t know anything about a union,” added fellow Shop Steward Hai Ngo. “Even when they joined a union, and they had a problem, they don’t know where they’re going — they don’t know who they’ve got to ask.”

Donson Ha

That’s where Ha and shop stewards like Bui and Ngo entered the equation. Local 85 and SMART International representatives realized they had to do more to gain the trust of the Price workforce, and in the spirit of true trade unionism, they looked to the rank-and-file for leadership. Ha, a 10-year Local 85 member, came from the building trades side of the industry — but after seeing the number of Vietnamese workers in production, especially older workers, he was motivated to change job titles.

Since Local 85 hired Ha as a subsidized production organizer, the percentage of organized workers has approximately doubled.

“I’m very happy to organize, to stand up for Vietnamese people, because they didn’t understand the union; they don’t speak English, and they didn’t know how strong it is to be a union member,” said Ha. “My job is to help them understand how it works, how the union helps people.”

In January 2024, Belonging and Excellence for All (BE4ALL) announced the winner of its fourth-quarter contest, which asked members to answer the question: Why are you proud to be a SMART union member? For 16-year Local 85 (Atlanta, Georgia) member Matthew Beckham, the contest winner, union pride walks hand-in-hand with the life-changing benefits SMART membership provides, and it’s something he says he wears “daily with pride, integrity and humility.” Read Beckham’s story:

“I started my career in 2007 as a pre-apprentice in Augusta, Ga., at the Sweet Tea project. Fast forward to today – I’m currently an active member, never been late on my dues or even to a job unless running a fever.

“My story is short and sweet: By joining the union in 2007, I have had doors opened to me that would have never been opened if I wouldn’t have taken the leap of faith and cleaned my act up by seizing such a great opportunity for myself and my family. I am currently a safety manager for the best and biggest mechanical contractor in the state of Georgia, McKenney’s. My calling has led me down a safety path, where I have the opportunity to help my brothers and sisters get through problems and challenges in our industry.

“My daughter is the recipient of one of the 2023-2024 scholarship awards from SMART. She has been selected out of 130 other candidates and is the winning one for zone three. She is currently a freshman at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama.

“To summarize this with grace: Neither myself nor my family would be where we are today if it wasn’t for my local union. The union life has given me countless blessings, and I wear it daily with pride, integrity and humility.”

Throughout the summer of 2023, more than 300 high school students and recent graduates participated in the Heavy Metal Summer Experience (HMSE), a free summer camp that introduces them to jobs and careers in the unionized building trades.

At signatory contractor R.F. Knox in Atlanta in June, SMART Local 85 journeyperson Antonio Albarran walked students through creating a sheet metal dustpan. He demonstrated a laser cutter, showed them how to measure and cut flat metal, how to bend it on a press, and how to drill holes for attaching the dustpan handle.

“They’re coming into an actual work environment,” said Albarran. “So, yeah, it is different for them. It does get a little bit loud, it is a little bit hot. But they get the actual experience.”

Students relished the opportunity to get that real-world experience, as well as an introduction to the range of work done in a sheet metal fabrication shop.

“Tuesday was my first time welding, so I thought that was really cool,” said Lizbeth Chavez, who attends Osborne High School in Marietta, Ga. “And we got to do things from scratch. So, that was fun.”

“I learned how to bend sheet metal,” said Allison Flores, who also attends Osborne High School. “I’ve never worked with sheet metal before.”

The project is the brainchild of Angie Simon, past SMACNA national president and recently retired from Western Allied Mechanical, headquartered just north of San Jose, Calif. As SMACNA president, Simon said she would often hear from union contractors that workforce development and recruitment were top problems.

“They would always say, ‘We don’t have enough people, we’re worried about the future.’ So, I started challenging contractors to stop thinking that somebody was going to take care of it for them, and it was time for them to get some skin in the game.”

In 2021, Western Allied teamed up with the Hermanson Company in Washington state and piloted two six-week-long summer career exploration camps, with the intention of replicating the program across the United States.

The project grew from 28 students in two locations in 2021, to more than 170 students in 2022. In the summer of 2023 — now incorporated as a 501c(3) — HMSE enrolled 325 students in 21 locations, including 10 states and one Canadian province.

“I’m very interested. I want to pursue this as a career,” said Nicholas Brown, who participated in the program at R.F. Knox in Atlanta and attends Osborne High School. “I knew they were going to have welding, and I’m really passionate about that. But I was also interested in learning about the other stuff, like sheet metal and ductwork.”

R.F. Knox Safety Director and Local 85 journeyperson Bill Kessler says an emphasis on safety is integrated into all aspects of the camp. From classroom instruction to specific tools and techniques, he works to ensure students learn best practices for avoiding workplace hazards, while having fun along the way.

“They’re making something that they can use at home and they’re proud of it,” said Kessler. “And the enthusiasm on the first day was ‘Wow! Isn’t this cool!’ And every one of them looked at me and smiled and said ‘Yeah, this is cool.’”

Waters Mechanical was founded by Brandon Waters in 2000. His father was the owner of a union signatory firm, so he had some familiarity with the union. The company was struggling to grow its sheet metal workforce, which had dwindled to six sheet metal workers. They could not find enough qualified, experienced sheet metal workers, and it was impacting the company’s ability to grow and perform more projects.

As part of their organizing efforts, SM Local 85 (Atlanta, Ga.) contacted Waters to explain how the local could solve the company’s qualified sheet metal workforce shortage through its hiring hall, apprenticeship training program, continuous worker recruiting, turnkey benefit programs and more.

After a series of meetings between the company and the local, Business Manager Steve Langley signed an agreement with Waters Mechanical on February 14th, 2022.

The local began providing all classifications of sheet metal workers to the company. The company’s six existing sheet metal employees were offered membership in Local 85. Waters also joined Local 85 as an owner-member because he saw the value in participating in the union’s benefit programs.

Waters Mechanical successfully performs projects in the outlying areas of the huge Atlanta metro markets, as well as projects in smaller cities in middle and southern Georgia, like Savannah, Macon/Warner Robbins, Valdosta, St. Simonds Island and Augusta/Fort Gordon.

The partnership with Waters Mechanical is helping Local 85 to expand its market presence in these areas on schools, government buildings and light commercial/retail projects. These projects are mostly in outlying areas where the local previously had little to no presence.

Waters Mechanical opened a second office in the Atlanta area to focus on the northern part of the state. In addition to supplying sheet metal workers, Local 85 also assisted the company with finding the leadership personnel needed to run the expanded operations.

Today, the company has more than quadrupled its number of sheet metal workers and continues to steadily land new projects — which call for more sheet metal workers from Local 85’s hiring hall and apprentice program.

Because of the positive experience with Local 85, the company also became signatory to the UA locals in the area and is in conversations with Lance Fout, business manager of Local 435 in North Florida, about expanding operations into the Jacksonville market.