SMART members across North America are living in extraor­dinary times. And nowhere are these extraordinary times, with all their challenges and opportunities, better exemplified than in Faribault, Minnesota, a town of approximately 25,000 people and the home of SMART Local 480.

An American flag flies over the shop floor as Local 480 members work at Daikin Applied.

In Faribault and nearby Owatonna, money from laws passed by the Biden administration has spurred a surge in demand at commercial HVAC manufacturer Daikin Applied, leading to an equiv­alent increase in workforce needs. Local 480, which represents produc­tion members, has responded by putting the pedal to the metal: orga­nizing, recruiting and concocting innovative solutions to make sure they have the workers they need — both today, and for the long term.

“We’re growing way faster than anybody would’ve ever expected,” said Local 480 Business Manager Donavan Vierling.

Meeting the challenge

Approximately three years ago, Local 480 had 849 members across its signatory shops: Daikin Applied in Faribault and Owatonna, and Crown Cork and Seal in Faribault. Today, the local has around 1,250 members — and it’s expected to need 250 more at Daikin by the end of 2024.

“Our Daikin shops have really started to grow, especially with the money out there for COVID relief, from the CHIPS and Science Act, the infrastructure bill. The company has seen huge growth, and they’ve put a lot of money in their plants, technology, things like that,” said Local 480 Subsidized Organizer Billy Dyrdahl, a third-generation sheet metal worker.

With the need for workers showing no signs of stopping, Dyrdahl and Local 480 have pulled out all the organizing stops: hand billing during shift changes at nonunion production shops, visiting workers at manufacturing plants that are closing, flyering at gas stations and much more. They’ve also worked with the company on retention efforts, ensuring new hires know all the benefits provided by Daikin and by their union. Dyrdahl and the local even went so far as to contract with Strive Staffing, an agency that provides gateways to union jobs like those at the Minnesota Vikings and Twins stadiums, to reach potential new hires in the Twin Cities area.

The effort to meet Daikin’s demand has been a union-wide one. SMART Local 10, based out of the Twin Cities metro, has collabo­rated with Local 480 on various canvassing and flyering operations, including to fill workforce needs at Daikin. Plus, by working with SMART International Organizer Dan Kortte, Local 10 Business Manager Matt Fairbanks, Organizer Paul Martin and others, Local 480 recently helped Daikin complete a time-sensitive welding job by bringing on several Local 10 sheet metal workers from greater Minneapolis/St. Paul.

“The company originally figured it was going to be about a three-month project,” Vierling recalled. “These guys showed their skill and basically were done in half the time [Daikin] expected.”

The collaboration between Local 10 and Local 480 shows the industry-spanning solidarity of our union. It’s also helped provide new career pathways for SMART members across the state: Dyrdahl said Local 480 has worked with Local 10 to welcome building trades sheet metal workers who were seeking to work in a production environment.

Welcoming all members

Bringing new workers into Daikin is one thing; ensuring that the latest Local 480 members stay there is something else entirely.

“How do you onboard people and not turn everything into a complete revolving door? … Our challenge, as a union, is to make [new] people feel welcome,” Vierling explained.

For years, the demographics of Local 480 and the Daikin workforce were largely white and male. In recent decades, though, Faribault and Owatonna have welcomed a growing number of Latino/ Hispanic people and immigrants from Somalia, and the sheet metal industry at large has made strides to bring more women into the trade. Local 480 has acted accordingly – and in the true spirit of unionism — to make sure those workers have a better life.

“I’m seeing it right now: Daikin is growing, diversity-wise,” said Mustafa Jama, a Somali immigrant and 21-year SMART member. “They’re hiring all kinds of people, it doesn’t matter who you are. My department barely had female workers [when I started] … now, all through shifts, you will see at least 50% women, which is a good thing.”

This growth can take many forms, Jama, Vierling and Dyrdahl explained. One example: The Islam-practicing Somali American workers at Daikin originally ran into obstacles with management around break times and scheduling that accommodated their religious practice, which includes daily prayers and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Local 480 stood up for their newest members the same way they would for workers of any faith — negotiating with the company to devise break time flexibility and shift-scheduling that gives Muslim members the ability to break their fast at sundown during Ramadan, and including contract provisions that allow those same members to use time off to observe their religion.

Vierling and Dyrdahl are also supporting Recording Secretary Stephanie Bottke’s nascent efforts to form a Local 480 Women’s Committee — a development that will help women across all signa­tory shops gain a stronger support network (and assist as the local recruits more women moving forward). Bottke, a member of the SMART Recruitment and Retention Council, was inspired to take action by conversations with fellow SMART sisters across the union and by her own experience in the trade. Her early years were some­what isolated, she said, particularly when she was pregnant and a working mother.

“I personally started on the shop floor at 19 years old. I raised a family on the shop floor,” Bottke recalled. “There weren’t resources available, or at least none that I knew of … about what was available to me as I was raising a family. The basic needs of nursing, time off work, those types of things.”

She hopes the Local 480 Women’s Committee will help provide her union sisters with mentors to turn to — and strengthen overall soli­darity at the local by helping with recruiting and retention.

“Women come into our build­ings not knowing that there are other women that are going to be supportive, and through a women’s committee we can definitely estab­lish that support system,” Bottke said. “And I think through the women’s committee and estab­lishing those early connections, it will help our general membership see that we can be stronger when we’re connected as a whole.”

Such changes are not without challenges. Jama, now a team lead, faced unacceptable discrimina­tion when he first started as a coil assembler back in 2000 — and similar incidents have been reported more recently. In the same vein, some of Bottke’s first attempts at spreading awareness about the newly formed women’s committee were met with confusion at best, derision at worst.

But support from local union representatives and leaders has helped both Jama and Bottke continue on their trailblazing paths — and Dyrdahl, Vierling, Jama and Bottke all say that overcoming those difficulties and pursuing inclusive growth can only help Local 480 win stronger protections for all members moving forward.

“There’s a change, but that change came with sacrifice. People spoke up, and there were policy changes,” Jama emphasized.

“Having our local grow helps in all types of ways — including financially,” Dyrdahl added. “We can spend on lawyers when we need them for certain things. We are able to spend money to support our negotiating committee to really build up our contracts.”

Moving forward, Daikin continues to grow and require more workers. Local 480 is organizing accordingly, spreading the word to anyone who will listen: The union life is a better one for you and your family.

“Sometimes, union’s a bad word until people come and see what our benefit packages are and our wages,” Dyrdahl said. “Once we get them in the local, they’re pretty happy with it.”

SMART International Organizer Warren Faust speaks during a rally for Green Transit, Green Jobs in New York.

SMART International Organizer Warren Faust and International Representative Larry Kinzie joined fellow union members, environmental advocates, industry leaders and New York state legislators on January 30 to call on Governor Kathy Hochul to include the Green Transit, Green Jobs bill (S.6089/A.6414) in the SFY 2025 Final Budget. Standing in front of an electric bus built by SMART Local 105 members in Lancaster, California, the coalition urged New York lawmakers to pass common-sense legislation that puts workers first and creates union jobs.

“As the union that represents workers at a major zero-emission bus manufacturer, we recognize that government spending can support good, community-sustaining jobs throughout the country and in New York,” said Faust. 

The Green Transit, Green Jobs bill would mandate that public bus systems convert to zero-emission buses, incentivizing the manufacturing of electric buses in New York communities that need jobs and opportunity. It would require that all new buses purchased by New York public transit authorities be electric by 2029, and it would ensure that zero-emission buses purchased by the state achieve a dual goal: helping reduce carbon emissions in New York State and creating good, family-sustaining jobs that take New Yorkers into the middle class.

During the January 30 rally, Faust pointed to the work of Local 105 members at electric bus manufacturer BYD as an example for New York to follow, noting that their work helped the Antelope Valley Transit Authority achieve North America’s first fully zero-emission bus fleet in 2022. He also emphasized the importance of SMART and BYD’s work to develop the country’s first electric bus manufacturing apprenticeship program, creating firm pathways to union careers for local community members.

“SMART and BYD have shown that a successful partnership between unions and manufacturers can lead to a well-trained workforce ready for the transition to a green economy,” Faust said. “This was possible through policy proposals like the U.S. Jobs Plan, a strong jobs and equity tool that is part of the Green Transit, Green Jobs bill.”

Currently, according to Earthjustice, the transportation sector accounts for 41% of all fuel combustion emissions in New York state – helping spur the ongoing climate crisis and leading to high levels of air pollution that make up more than 2,000 premature deaths from ingesting toxic pollution from tailpipe emissions annually. The public health damages from vehicle emissions cost the state $21 billion each year.

“New York state can change the way it invests our public dollars to maintain and create good, community-sustaining jobs in manufacturing,” Faust concluded. “New York can lead the way by passing the U.S. Jobs Plan and the Green Transit, Green Jobs bill.”

SMART Production Department leaders from across the United States and Canada met in Indianapolis at the end of August for the first-ever Production Institute training. The week-long class, part of a three-year program tailored to production locals, featured sessions on bargaining, labor law, grievance handling, labor history and more — all geared towards helping local union leaders become the best advocates they can be for SMART members.

“The class is really an orientation to why we do what we do, and why they do what they do, and how it fits into this larger picture,” said SMART Director of Education Sam White. “[For example], production leaders need specific types of grievance handling or steward training for the kind of representation work that they do.”

“Things work differently in production shops,” added SMART International Organizer Sharon Walker. “Each one of our production shops has a separate contract, unlike the building trades side, where you might have one contract in the entire local. We file grievances more than they do — it’s just a totally different world.”

A key goal of the Production Institute training was to bring leaders from disparate areas and contexts into the same room, demonstrating both commonalities and differences — and illustrating lessons that can be learned from one another.

“What we’re finding out is that a lot of us are dealing with the same issues in different places, but we also are finding out that some of our situations are isolated based on area, demographics or the workforce as a whole,” said Local 85 (Atlanta, Georgia) Business Agent Schuyler Worthey.

One example: Local unions in states and provinces that are relatively labor-friendly can go on offense, organizing new shops in order to strengthen our union. But for locals in right-to-work states, explained Local 110 (Louisville, Kentucky) Organizer and Recording Secretary Jeremy Waugh, the calculus changes.

“We need to internally organize our production shops so that we can retain the membership and get people to sign up,” he said.

While the differences between locals, areas and countries are important and noteworthy, White said, the training also focused on local unions’ role in the shared history of the labor movement. We can learn from the victories and setbacks of the past — and take comfort in the fact that we are all part of a long struggle for workers’ rights.

Production leaders left the training ready to continue that movement.

“There’s an old adage about taking time to sit down once in awhile and sharpen your axe to be effective, and I think that’s what we’re doing: We’re honing our skills, and we’re going to bring that back to our home locals and really put them into action,” said Local 30 (Toronto, Ontario) Business Representative Joseph Popadynetz. “When you put all those leaders in the same room and you start to share ideas and stories, that’s a bonus effect. It’s just incredible.”

SMART members work to manufacture electric public transportation vehicles at BYD in Los Angeles, an example of the green union jobs SMART is pursuing.
SMART members work on green union jobs across our two nations, including the manufacturing of electric vehicles and transit systems.

Earth Day represents both an annual celebration of our natural environment and a call to action for our planet, our jobs and our families. Awareness continues to grow regarding the damaging effects of climate catastrophe, and governments are reacting accordingly by shifting towards green economic and energy systems. From offshore wind farms, to public school retrofitting, to electric vehicle battery manufacturing, climate change is requiring new innovations across all sectors of North America’s workforce.

SMART members have been on the forefront of green union jobs for decades. Buildings account for about 40% of total energy use in the United States, with more than 35% of the energy generated in the U.S. used to operate buildings’ HVAC systems. SMART’s manufacturing members produce energy efficient air movement equipment, heating and cooling machinery and insulated duct systems. Across our two nations, these production workers build dedicated outside air systems (DOAS) units, rooftop units, water-source heat pumps, underfloor air distribution systems and chilled beams – all designed to increase energy efficiency and keep our buildings running smoothly. These green, leading-edge technologies are not only designed and manufactured by SMART members; our union sheet metal workers install the products as well.

Members of the SMART Transportation Division are also doing their part to reduce harmful pollution, particularly in the transit sector. Whether moving passengers from point A to point B on electric buses in California or bringing citizens to work on commuter rail systems in Chicago, New Jersey and beyond, TD workers are helping accomplish the dual achievement of reducing automobile emissions and efficiently and safely transporting Americans to their destinations. And at BYD in Los Angeles, the sheet metal and transportation sectors combine, as SMART Local 105 members help manufacture electric busses for local communities.  

“Whether schools, hospitals, offices or apartment buildings, SMART workers are helping reduce energy output and keeping our nations working in cleaner, healthier ways,” said SMART General President Joseph Sellers, Jr. “These green union jobs are vital for our countries and our membership.”

SMART Local 0023 bus drivers pose for a picture in front of a bus.
SMART Local 0023 members working for Santa Cruz Metro.

In Canada, meanwhile, the government’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 has placed a new emphasis on SMART’s skilled workforce.

“The transition to net-zero is a once-in-a-lifetime economic shift, not seen since the industrial revolution, and it is absolutely vital that this work is performed by union members,” noted SMART Director of Canadian Affairs Chris Paswisty. “Whether retrofitting buildings across Canada to increase energy efficiency, performing indoor air quality work or installing green roofs, the incentives included in the 2023 Federal Budget will put our members’ labour in high demand, creating green union jobs.”

The electric vehicle industry has proven to be fertile ground for SMART, with hundreds of members currently working to build EV battery factories in states like Kentucky and Ohio. But the burgeoning sector also presents a warning – unlike the “Big Three” automakers of old, many electric vehicle manufacturers are extremely nonunion. That’s why SMART members and locals must do more than merely take on the green energy work of today, Sellers added. Labor needs to organize and engage lawmakers to ensure the economy of tomorrow works for future generations.

“There was once a time when green energy goals were at odds with the labor movement. But SMART sheet metal and transportation workers know the importance of ensuring the jobs of the future are good, family-sustaining, green union jobs,” he explained. “Across our two nations, SMART members and local unions must push our communities to adopt green energy policies with strong labor standards attached – from decarbonizing schools in Rhode Island to installing green roofing technology in Canada. We will continue bringing workers into our union to meet these new workforce needs, and work with our elected officials to make this transition to green energy with union labor.”

Two years of pro-worker policy have led to a wealth of opportunity for SMART sheet metal workers, now and into the future. Across the country, companies are once again investing in American manufacturing: building and maintaining facilities for electric vehicle batteries, data centers, semiconductor production and more — all of which require the expertise of SMART members.

I just appreciate SMART leadership and the Biden administration doing what needed to be done to get the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed, because we really needed this in all of our communities to build back the working class.”

SMART Local 83 members have worked for years on a GlobalFoundries chip plant in Malta, N.Y. Now, thanks to the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, GlobalFoundries is building an entire new building to expand its existing plant — a development Local 83 Business Manager Frank Maguire said will keep members “very busy for the next five to 10 years.” In addition, Local 83 members will help build the first wind turbine facility in the U.S., located in the Port of Albany.

“We have a very bright outlook for sheet metal workers in the Albany, New York area,” Maguire added.

SMART members in the Southwest Gulf Coast region can also look forward to a bounty of new work in the coming years, including a Meta data center ($30 billion of work); a Samsung project ($207 billion of work); a Texas Instruments semiconductor project in Sherman, Texas ($30 billion of work); and the next phase of a Tesla plant.

“This is the most work for our members in 20–25 years, and it’s creating good-paying, union construction jobs,” said SMART Southwest Gulf Coast Regional President Bill Kenyon. “I just appreciate SMART leadership and the Biden administration doing what needed to be done to get the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed, because we really needed this in all of our communities to build back the working class.”

The surge in megaprojects extends beyond the United States’ borders. In Canada, a $4.9 billion battery plant in Windsor, Ontario, will require 10 million pounds of galvanized duct to be manufactured in Toronto. That duct will then be installed by SM Local 235 members in Windsor.

“We’re hoping to get all the sheet metal work on the whole project, plus all the roofing,” said Michael Mahon, business manager/financial secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Sheet Metal Workers and Roofers in Windsor. “It’ll employ anywhere from 300–500 sheet metal workers and roofers.”

And in the Kansas City, Mo. area, SMART Local 2 workers will be called to work on two large data centers in the near future: a two-million-square-foot Meta data center and a $4.9 billion Panasonic battery factory in Kansas. That’s in addition to a biomedical facility in Manhattan, Kansas, to be constructed in conjunction with the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) that Local 2 members have worked on for the last five years. All told, these projects will bring an unprecedented number of jobs to area SMART members.

“We think [the Panasonic project] is going to be one of the largest projects that’s ever been done in Local 2’s jurisdiction,” explained Local 2 Business Manager Greg Chastain.

These megaprojects exemplify the historic progress that SMART has made in the last two years — and we will continue to organize to build our strength as we move into the future.