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.”

Vince Alvarado, a longtime business manager for SMART Local 49 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, joined NEMIC this past fall as the fund’s new director of implementation. Alvarado has been tasked with overseeing some of NEMIC’s legislative initiatives and working to implement solutions that NEMIC identifies across the country.

NEMIC Director of Implementation Vince Alvarado

“I’m working on the ‘how’ of things. How can we assist locals and contractors in states where we’ve passed legislation on indoor air quality, for example? We get the legislation passed, but there may be no enforcement. We need to change that,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado started working for a small independent refrigeration contractor as a junior in high school. He apprenticed at Local 49 and went on to serve in various leadership roles there, culminating in his election as business manager/financial secretary in 2010. After a few years, he was also elected to serve in a statewide leadership role as president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, in 2018.

In both roles, Alvarado had to find ways to influence local politics. For SMART, he worked on smoke and fire damper legislation. As the leader of the AFL-CIO New Mexico state federation, he assisted in getting various types of legislation in front of state decision makers, most aimed at improving health and safety outcomes for working people and their families.

At NEMIC, Alvarado looks forward to helping people and organizations like Local 49 on this much larger scale, and he realizes he will need to navigate political scenes that may be more complex than he’s previously experienced. COVID introduced to the world many of the issues with indoor air quality, and now it’s time to work to help fix those issues, he said.

“I’ll be working with new faces, which is exciting, but it could be difficult, if I don’t understand the political landscape,” Alvarado said. “While I could approach solutions in my work at Local 49 entirely from a working family perspective, I now have to approach it with more groups in mind. That could be a challenge.”

Even before the pandemic, Alvarado was fighting to improve indoor air quality regulations, along with smoke and fire damper laws. In 2019, Local 49 fought for and passed SB 143 — the nation’s first statewide fire safety law. Alvarado subsequently worked with leaders in Nevada, New Jersey and Hawaii to pass similar legislation.

When the state of New Mexico comes to mind, we often think of the Carlsbad Caverns, uniquely rugged landscapes and exotic wildlife. Soon it may also conjure up thoughts of solid railroad safety and landmark two-person crew laws.

On Feb. 20, New Mexico’s state house chamber, known as the “Round House,” was full of debate and discussion about the state of modern railroads. Watching the proceedings felt on some level like sitting in a crewroom listening to coworkers argue. Many of the representatives sounded like the new guys every crew base has who try to argue their point, even though you can tell they are still working out the rough spots in their understanding of railroad terminology. Other reps offered the time-tested “old head” line of “This is how it’s always been done.”

Unlike those crewroom debates, the one in the Round House had the potential to bring about tangible results.

The weight of the outcome of the argument made it absolutely critical that SMART Transportation Division had a role in this debate. Luckily for all involved, State Legislative Director (SLD) Don Gallegos was right in the middle. At the right-hand side of Rep. Eliseo Alcon who was HB 105’s primary sponsor, Gallegos shepherded the conversation through to a successful conclusion.

As the House minority leader and the minority whip did an excellent job of playing the role of trainmaster in this crew room debate, they tried their best to paint Rep. Alcon into corner after corner in an effort to muddy the water on the bill’s intention and scope. They tried to make the bill too complex to stand a chance in the Senate by including verbiage on passenger rail and also tried to slow down the bill’s momentum by offering to take it back to the drawing board and work with the bill sponsor to strengthen the language.

In short, they put on a clinic on how to execute the railroad lobbyist playbook to subvert the common-sense inherent in HB 105. Yet at the end of the conversation, Rep Alcon and SLD Gallegos came out with a win — a 43-25 vote in favor with two representatives opting to pass on voting,

After passing through the House with such remarkable bipartisan support, the bill was then sent to New Mexico’s Senate Transportation Committee where it will be taken up in the near future. For his part in the progression of the bill, SLD Gallegos said, “This is further than our two-person crew legislations have gotten in the past. We are all very excited at the prospect of bringing a heightened level of safety to the communities of New Mexico as well as job security to our state’s railroad professionals.”

SMART-TD is proud of the progress in New Mexico and looks forward to seeing HB 105 progress. This is yet another example of SMART-TD’s National Legislative Department’s positive momentum.

New Mexico’s progress is a great illustration of the efforts that are going on nationwide to defend our members from the profit-at-all-costs business model of Precision Scheduled Railroading.

SMART-TD, behind the leadership of National Legislative Director Greg Hynes and Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity, have unprecedented positive momentum in the halls of state legislatures across the country. Our legislative directors currently have bills in front of 17 state legislatures and many are showing signs of being successful. SMART-TD is very proud of the progress that the SLDs are making in all of these states and would like to share some of the highlights.

· Washington HB 1839 — SLD Herb Krohn’s train-length bill is scheduled for a vote in the Washington House Transportation Committee at noon Feb. 23.

· Arizona HB 2531—SLD Robert Jones has a train length bill limiting trains to 8,500 feet. It was passed through committee and is heading to the floor of the Arizona House.

· Arizona HB 2531—SLD Robert Jones has a train length bill limiting trains to 8,500 feet. It was passed through committee and is heading to the floor of the Arizona House.

· Iowa SF 184 —SLD Chris Smith has a train length bill limiting trains to 8,500 feet. It has been passed through committee in the Iowa Senate and is heading to the Senate floor.

· New Mexico HB 105—SLD Don Gallegos has a two-person crew bill that passed the floor of the New Mexico House of Representatives and is heading to the Senate.

· Minnesota SF 1417—SLD Nicholas Katich has a two-person crew bill that is currently in committee.

· Ohio HB 23—SLD Clyde Whitaker has a two-person crew bill that includes provisions for regulating adherence to wayside defect detectors that is currently in committee.

In the 17 states where SMART-TD’s legislative team is pushing legislation in this cycle, we have 49 combined bills currently in play. These pieces of legislation have the potential to bring about a tremendous amount of progress in our industry and make your day-to-day lives better while holding rail carriers accountable. Your support is needed!

SMART-TD asks that you become involved in these legislative actions. Please visit the Take Action tab of SMART’s website and look at what bills are being pushed in your state. Letters, phone calls, and emails supporting the bills involving our industry go a long way towards realizing their success. We encourage you to advocate for yourselves and your brothers and sisters in your crew base.

Local 49 Business Manager Isaiah Zemke (right) with President Biden.

SM Local 49 (Albuquerque, N.M.) Business Manager/Financial Secretary-Treasurer Isaiah Zemke took part in a “Communities in Action: Building a Better New Mexico” meeting at the White House on October 7, 2022. The discussion, part of the Biden administration’s “Building a Better America” series, included an overview with leaders from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, followed by state-specific sessions.

“They had leaders from each state join – from unions, nonprofits, tribal governments and elected politicians – for a group briefing, followed by individual state roundtables to share stories and discuss amplifying them across our communities and states,” Zemke said, noting that he conducted a survey of Local 49 members prior to the meeting in order to convey members’ thoughts to the administration. “I discussed indoor air quality and how we are partnering with school boards, the state of New Mexico and municipalities [to perform that work.]”

In the group meeting, Zemke and other attendees met with Julie Chavez Rodriguez, senior advisor to President Biden; Steve Rochetti, legislative coordinator; Al Zaidi, White House national climate advisor; Jewel Bronaugh, deputy secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture; Susan Rice, director of domestic policy; and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Along with conveying members’ messages to the administration, Zemke participated in a discussion on how recent legislation will impact working families in the region.

“It sounds like the plan is to have all 50 states choose leaders to attend similar action plans,” Zemke added.

Watch Zemke discuss his visit to the White House in episode two of SMART News.

In the New Mexico roundtable, Zemke brought up the amount of work that Indoor Air Quality policies and legislation like the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will create for SM Local 49 members, including an Intel plant in Rio Rancho, N.M. He also pointed out the need for high schools to receive funding for CTE programs, ensuring that SMART and other building trades have the workforce pipeline that will be needed to complete the infrastructure work of the future.

Ultimately, the discussion once again proved SMART’s new level of access with the current administration – and the importance of taking advantage in order to strengthen our union.

Amtrak has informed federal, state and local officials along the route of the daily Chicago-to-Los Angeles Southwest Chief that it will provide matching funds to enable a federal grant to be awarded for safety and reliability upgrades in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, the carrier said in a news release Feb. 27.
The funds available to upgrade the route came after Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the FY2019 Appropriations Act, which included funding for Amtrak and intercity passenger rail, earlier in the month.
The legislation set aside at least $50 million of its National Network grant for improvements to the Southwest Chief route. Amtrak is using $3 million of these funds to match a $16 million grant successfully sought by these states, counties and cities and awarded to Colfax County, N.M. The grant and matching funds from the partners will result in an investment of more than $26 million in preserving the daily route from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Amtrak and BNSF Railway began community discussions regarding safety and other infrastructure improvements in 2011. Since then, more than $80 million has been committed from U.S. Department of Transportation grant programs, state and local governments, Amtrak and BNSF.
As reported in prior articles published on the SMART Transportation Division website and in the SMART TD News, Amtrak has been considering “bus bridges” on portions of the route or the potential discontinuation of the route altogether.
“We’re glad it’s getting funds to go through Colorado,” said Colorado State Legislative Director Carl Smith. “We’re supportive of all measures to continuing the Chief’s service through our state.”
Amtrak said in the release that it will use the newly available federal capital funding to continue needed work on the next route segment in New Mexico.
The carrier said in its release it is working on a long-term financial plan with state and local partners to address the unique challenges of the Southwest Chief route, particularly where Amtrak is the only user of BNSF tracks in Colorado and New Mexico.

union_pacific_logoALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Union Pacific Corp. has begun operations at a massive new railroad facility in southern New Mexico near both the U.S.-Mexico border and El Paso, Texas.

The Omaha, Neb.,-based railroad will use its newly constructed hub facility in Santa Teresa to transfer cargo between trains and trucks, as well as for refueling engines and changing train crews.

Read the complete story at The Kansas City Star.