SMART-TD’s shift to Regional Training Seminars (RTS) has been gaining momentum throughout 2022 and 2023. In early October, roughly 200 SMART-TD members gathered in Toledo, Ohio, and received intense, hands-on training on current trends and changes we are seeing from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Department of Transportation and the Department of Labor — and much more.

Participants were able to choose from a variety of training itineraries specific to their positions and needs. Classes for local chairpersons and vice local chairpersons were taught by SMART-TD Vice President Jamie Modesitt. The course aimed at legislative representatives was taught by SMART-TD’s National Legislative Department team of National Legislative Director Greg Hynes and Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity. Those who chose the curriculum for local presidents were led for the week by Ralph Leichliter, senior assistant to SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson. The class aimed at secretaries and treasurers was taught by Brother John Purcell, a SMART-TD field support representative.

In addition to these primary instructors, the courses in Toledo’s RTS were supplemented by State Legislative Directors Kenny Edwards of Indiana, Don Roach of Michigan and Clyde Whitaker of Ohio. These three effective leaders not only coordinated the RTS, but also bolstered the coursework with some of their states’ best-demonstrated practices.

On Friday, October 6, SMART-TD President Ferguson addressed the general session of the RTS, where he broke down the importance of such trainings. Statistically, he noted, our union’s rates of successful appeals have gone way up in recent years, as well as the number of claims that have been paid on appeal. Regional Training Seminars play a large role in this heightened level of success.

“We knew that we had a lot of young officers coming into this union,” Ferguson remarked. “We knew that we had a lot of young local chairmen coming in, and they were starving for training, starving for the information. How to handle themselves, write claims, and protect that member when they got charged. So, we had to answer that call.”

SMART-TD’s Regional Training Seminars have been a big part of “answering that call.”

“In the last two years, out of 369 cases that went to the First Division, 217 of those were sustained,” he said. “That’s a 58.8% win-to-loss ratio. When I first got involved, when Vice Presidents Modesitt and Brent Leonard got involved, we were happy with 22% to 25% coming out of a public law board. That is why we needed this training. … The cases we have in the pipeline are going to be even better than that. Why? Because we’ve been doing training like this. We’re not going to an annual regional meeting where we spend two hours a day in class and 20 hours talking shop.”

“This is what we’re doing with the member’s money,” Ferguson concluded. “We are helping officers get up to speed to where we need to be so we can back them up when their jobs and their lives are on the line out there on the ballast.”

On September 15, 2023, members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) working for the “Big Three” vehicle manufacturers — Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) — began their “stand up” strike, the first simultaneous strike against all Big Three companies in history. In the months following, SMART members across industry, craft and trade hit the picket line to stand with our UAW union siblings in their fight for better pay, working conditions and an economy that works for the working class.

Members of SMART-TD Local 278 (Jackson, Mich.) and General Committee GO 687 walked the line in Detroit, heart of the auto industry, on September 20: supporting the UAW Local 900 members outside of Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant. TD members showed up on the strike’s first day, then again four days later to deliver bottled water and to show support, Local 278 Legislative Representative Tom Dillon said.

“A common conversation I had with most UAW workers both days was that this fight wasn’t just for them. It was for all of us … all of us working, middle-class people trying to live a great life. A life that our parents enjoyed through the fruits of their labor,” he said.

In Missouri, meanwhile, Local 36 (St. Louis) members were on the line day and night — working the grill to keep UAW Local 2250 strikers well-fed, then picketing alongside UAW members after sunset.

And during the SMART Transportation Division’s October Regional Training Seminar in Toledo, Ohio, SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and other leaders were shoulder-to-shoulder with Toledo UAW Local 12, from Monday the 2nd through Friday the 6th — through rain, shine, day and night.

In November, UAW members ratified historic tentative agreements with Ford, Stellantis and GM, bringing the stand up strike to an end.

Since 1998, trains coming across the Mexican border to the United States in Laredo, Texas, have been run by crews from Mexico that are not certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). These crews have been taking trains into Port Laredo, where they receive an initial Class I inspection and brake test on U.S. soil.

This practice was established back in 1998, when Union Pacific requested a variance from FRA. The variance was reconfirmed in 2003, 2008, 2013, 2018 and was reapplied for in 2022. For years, the agency’s leaders responded to any request for renewal by saying, “Yes — if the railroad asked for it, it must be OK.”

But in 2023 — unlike the four prior requests — SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson, National Legislative Director Greg Hynes, Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Kamron Saunders, Texas’s state legislative director, officially requested FRA put an end to this practice. Along with our allies in the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department and other rail labor organizations, SMART-TD submitted strong public comments that pointed out many holes in the logic.

In October, FRA released its ruling on UP’s variance request. The carrier will continue to be allowed to perform Class I brake tests 10 miles into the U.S. in its yard in Port Laredo, Texas. However, in a clear victory for labor, a new rule was added:

“13. All trains crossing the international bridge at Laredo and destined for UP’s Port Laredo Yard must be operated from the bridge to that Yard by a properly qualified and certified UP locomotive engineer and conductor.”

Local Chairperson Eddy Castaneda of Local 1670 (Laredo, Texas) is also vice general chairperson of the San Antonio Hub, and explained that he is highly excited about the news out of the FRA.

“It has been a long fight to get this work back, and this is a big win for us. It wouldn’t have been possible without everyone working together,” he said. “All the local chairs in the Laredo Hub — Scott Chelette, our general committee chair, and Kamron Saunders, our Texas state legislative director — as well as the International, have been relentless: working on Congress and the FRA to get these jobs back in the hands of FRA-certified crews.

“We are grateful for those of us here in Laredo, but we have a long fight still to go. There are many other border crossings and a lot more crew bases we need to fight for.”

President Ferguson was in Texas at a Houston rail labor rally shortly after the FRA released its ruling.

“The carriers involved gave our work to non-FRA-certified foreign national crews a long time ago to save a buck for their shareholders,” he said at the time. “Today, our members got back some work that is rightfully ours, and this country is safer and better off for it. I’m proud of the work SMART-TD has done to make this happen.”

Cassity said FRA’s action is a step towards normalizing cross-border regulation.

“It is great that we got this work back for our crews, but the big-picture win is that FRA listened to SMART-TD,” he explained. “They listened to the views of Kamron Saunders and didn’t blindly swallow whatever the railroads tried to sell them. This FRA isn’t afraid to deny the railroad what they want if it isn’t the safest policy for our workers and the country itself.”

For more information, read FRA’s ruling embedded below. 

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.”

In September, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) awarded SMART-TD $602,227.35 to get members the training they need to safely perform their duties as railroad professionals.

The award was granted through FRA’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program. This is the first award of its kind to a rail labor organization and a clear indication from FRA Administrator Amit Bose and the Biden administration that they view SMART-TD as a true partner in the mission to improve rail safety — and as a union with innovative ideas and plans worth investing in.

SMART-TD has proactively provided tools such as SMART University to help enhance organizational training opportunities for our members and officers at every level of our organization. In addition, our Regional Training Seminars bring educational opportunities closer to home for those who want to learn more about their union and the way the industry works. This grant will help provide the financial means to further expand these platforms to include job duty best practices and other safety-sensitive training.

The training project these federal dollars are going toward is known as Data Driven Safety Training and Education for Front-Line Railroad Workers. SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and his department, in collaboration with SMART-TD’s National Legislative Director Greg Hynes and Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity, will lead the charge as they aim to restructure the training rail workers receive.

“Every railroader has his or her own opinion on what needs to be done to fix the industry. But one thing all of us agree on is that the training programs are not even close to reflecting how dangerous or important rail jobs are,” Ferguson said.

He went on to frame the grant award as a vote of confidence in SMART’s ability to provide leadership in this arena.

“If I had to sum up my reaction, I would say that Department of Transportation (DOT) leadership and President Biden see the dangerous trajectory this industry is on. Training is fundamental to a safe workplace, not just for our members but for the public, too. The East Palestine disaster and the fact that there are more than three major derailments a day in this nation are a testament to the need for a fundamental change, and proof that the status quo is clearly not working. They recognize that there is a better solution by investing in SMART-TD and our vision of training.”

New-hire training for all Class I railroads has been in the crosshairs of FRA Administrator Bose in the past year as national focus on railroad safety intensifies. Bose has called for a complete audit of Norfolk Southern’s training program and has even gone as far as rejecting their program in its entirety and giving hard deadlines to redesign it from the ground up.

CSX has also had very public struggles with their training programs this year, including two trainee fatalities that prompted scrutiny from SMART-TD as well as the FRA. But as all our members know, the bare-bones training approach of the Class I railroads is not exclusive to any one carrier. Some of the freight carriers are participating in a race to the bottom by cutting corners, at the expense of training, to fill self-inflicted employment shortages as quickly as possible.

In addition to supplementing the training of our freight railroaders, this grant project is also tasked with providing our brothers and sisters on commuter and passenger rail with a heightened level of training in preventing assaults in their workspace.

“As our transit and commuter rail members know all too well, their carriers and agencies have failed to provide the operational changes and training necessary to keep our members safe. That is unacceptable. We take this seriously and know that more is required, especially as the assault rates continue to climb,” Cassity said. “With this grant, SMART-TD will once again pick up the slack for the gaps in the carriers’ training. If the companies can’t keep our people safe, we’re damn well going to do it ourselves.”

Finally, Ferguson made sure to acknowledge the efforts of SMART-TD Director of Administration Matt Dolin in winning the FRA grant.

“He deserves our thanks for securing this grant. He went above and beyond the call of duty to make this a reality,” Ferguson said. “When this program is all said and done, Matt’s efforts will have been leveraged into thousands of hours of safety training that would not have happened otherwise. There were a lot of moving parts in making this grant a reality, but Matt and his professionalism played a large role in realizing this funding.”

Following the retirement of Bus Vice President Calvin Studivant and the passing of Transportation Division Vice President John Whitaker, Alvy Hughes and Jamie Modesitt have been appointed to the SMART General Executive Council as general vice presidents.

Alvy Hughes was born in 1972. Hughes attended Chowan College and served in the Army National Guard from 1990 to 1998, beginning his transportation career with Charlotte Transit in 1995.

As a member of Local 1596 in Charlotte, N.C., Hughes has served as local vice president, secretary of General Committee of Adjustment GO TMM and general chairperson of General Committee of Adjustment GO TMM. He has also served as vice chairperson of the Association of General Chairpersons — District 3. He was elevated to the Board of Appeals in 2009.

On Oct. 1, 2014, he was elevated to the office of Transportation Division alternate vice president — bus — East by the Transportation Division Board of Directors. Five years later, he was elected to the office of vice president — bus at the second SMART Transportation Division Convention in Las Vegas on August 11, 2019.

Hughes and his wife, Lisa, reside in Charlotte, N.C., with their three children and one grandchild.

Jamie C. Modesitt, a member of Local 298 in Garrett, Indiana, was born July 1, 1974. He attended Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, before beginning his railroad career with CSX Transportation on June 12, 2000. He holds the craft of conductor and engineer.

Modesitt was elected local chairperson of Local 298 in 2006, where he was responsible for serving approximately 200 members, and was re-elected by acclamation to that position in 2011. In 2011, Modesitt was elected secretary of CSXT/B&O General Committee GO 049 and was later elected by acclamation to a full-time position as 2nd vice general chairperson in 2012. He was later elected by acclamation to 1st vice general chairperson in 2014. Modesitt was elected general chairperson by acclamation in January 2018 and in January 2019 during the GO 049 Reconvening Meeting.

Modesitt served as delegate for Local 298 and attended UTU Conventions in 2007, 2011 and the first SMART-TD and General Conventions in 2014. He was selected by the board of directors to serve as the chairperson of the 2014 SMART-TD Constitution Committee. In addition, Modesitt was appointed an alternate member to the TD Executive Board by the board of directors on April 4, 2017, and was elevated to the Executive Board in January 2018.

Modesitt has served as general chairperson on one of the largest rail general committees in the country, representing thousands of members consisting of conductors, trainmen, yardmen, passenger conductors, passenger assistant conductors, hostlers, engineer trainees, engineers, trackmen, signalmen, carmen, machinists and locomotive electricians. He is considered an expert when it comes to Railway Labor Act (RLA) arbitration, with experience in well over 1,000 cases consisting of discipline cases and agreement rules, and has presented local chairperson workshops at SMART-TD Regional Meetings since 2015.

Modesitt was elected to the position of vice president by acclamation at the second SMART Transportation Division Convention, Aug. 11, 2019. He and his wife, Janelle, reside in Jacksonville, Florida.

On October 1, 2023, Tom Wiant moved from his position as SMART Region 3 International representative to become assistant to the general president — the latest step in a 30-plus-year career in the unionized sheet metal industry.

Wiant began his journey in the trade as a production worker in 1986, entering the Local 33 (northern Ohio) apprenticeship in 1987 and attaining journeyperson status in 1992. He successfully ran for election as a business representative in 2003; seven years later, he was elected Local 33 financial secretary-treasurer in 2010. After representing Local 33 members in that role for 11 years, Wiant was appointed SMART Region 4 International representative in 2021, moving to Region 3 in 2022.

Richard Mangelsdorf began his new position as SMART International instructor on November 1, 2023, taking the next step in his union career.

Mangelsdorf became a member of SMART Local 280 (Vancouver, B.C.) in 2001. He worked as a part-time instructor with the Sheet Metal Workers Training Centre from 2008 until 2015, mentoring sheet metal apprentices as he continued to work as a journeyperson. He was elected as a local union trustee in 2009 and a health benefit trustee in 2012. In 2015, Mangelsdorf became a business representative, serving in that position until he became Local 280 business manager/financial secretary-treasurer in 2021.

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.”

More than 125 people rallied and marched in support of workers at Santa Ana Kingspan Light + Air on October 20, occupying an intersection in downtown Santa Ana, California, and unfurling a giant parachute banner that read “¡Kingspan Escucha!” as they called on the multi-billion-dollar building materials manufacturer to listen to workers’ concerns.

The rally was the latest in a series of actions Kingspan workers have taken in the face of workplace safety violations and alleged indoor air pollution.

In Santa Ana, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) fined Kingspan $21,785 in 2022 for 22 violations of the health and safety code — including five serious violations — after workers filed a complaint. Thanks to their courage, the workers won key safety provisions, including ventilator masks. But workers remain concerned that several of the violations the company abated last year are recurring.

In August 2021, Kingspan Santa Ana workers teamed up with University of California, Irvine professor and air pollution scientist Dr. Shahir Masri over a three-day period to document the levels of air pollution inside their factory. The results showed average levels of particulate matter that, if measured outdoors, would fall between “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” on the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index.

“Management just kind of does whatever they feel they need to do to maybe stay compliant, but a lot of my coworkers still feel that the changes they’ve made aren’t actually beneficial to them.”

And in the same year, workers blew the whistle on Kingspan Santa Ana with the California Environmental Protection Agency, alleging the company was not adhering to parts of its pollution prevention program. In May 2023, Kingspan settled and paid $45,000 to the Santa Ana Water Board for “serious and chronic” violations of its General Permit for Storm Water Discharges associated with its industrial permit.

“Management just kind of does whatever they feel they need to do to maybe stay compliant, but a lot of my coworkers still feel that the changes they’ve made aren’t actually beneficial to them,” said Lucas Hernandez, a Kingspan Santa Ana field service tech, during the October 20 rally.

Workers are also standing together against alleged safety violations in Kingspan Insulated Panels’ Modesto plant. On September 6, 2023, seven Modesto Kingspan workers filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA, alleging exposure to insulation dust and hazardous chemicals, unsanitary conditions due to an indoor infestation of pigeons, a history of inadequate training for hazardous materials, and a lack of personal protective equipment, among other complaints. The workers painstakingly documented the alleged issues themselves, delivering a detailed complaint to OSHA and a signed copy to the plant manager following OSHA’s unannounced inspection.

“On one occasion, a chemical was spilled out. And the smell was very strong all over the department. I was actually having a headache, because it was so strong,” said Kingspan Modesto worker Celina Arellano, one of the signers of the Cal/OSHA complaint. “When a chemical is spilled out, they must evacuate us, because it’s very strong, and they didn’t do anything … they kept running the line.”

Arellano was fired the week after workers delivered a copy of their Cal/OSHA complaint to Kingspan management. SMART has filed unfair labor practice charges against Kingspan challenging her termination. Kingspan workers continue to lead the way as they advocate for the working conditions that they deserve.

“We want to be heard, and we want to hear from [Kingspan] that they’re going to support us, that they’re going to be behind us as a workforce,” said Kingspan Modesto worker Arturo Lopez during the October 20 Santa Ana rally. “I really hope Kingspan listens to its workers and decides to change.”