Jason Benson began his position as SMART director of organizing on June 29, 2023, following Darrell Roberts’ move to assistant to the general president. Benson began his career in the sheet metal trade in November of 1999 as a pre-apprentice working for Bright Sheet Metal in Indianapolis, Ind. He was accepted into the Local 20 apprenticeship program in March of 2000, completing his five-year apprenticeship and turning out as a journeyperson in March 2005. Two years later, Benson was appointed organizer for Local 20, a position in which he worked until successfully running for election as Local 20 business representative for the Lafayette/Indianapolis area in 2010. Benson served as a business representative until December 2017, when he was hired as the apprenticeship coordinator for Local 20.
“This is a moment of incredible possibility for our union,” Benson said. “I’m excited to get to work supporting locals across North America as we look to grow and expand our collective bargaining power.”
SMART members positioned for unprecedented opportunity
The time is now for our union. Across all the industries and crafts represented in our union — HVAC installation, railroading, indoor air quality, transit operation, architectural sheet metal, production, sign work, bus operation and beyond — SMART members are positioned for generational growth. Now, we need to seize these opportunities.
Political advocacy pays off for sheet metal workers
Unprecedented investment in the sheet metal industry — much of it due to strong labor standards and incentives included in federal legislation in the U.S. — paired with ongoing core work is creating incredibly high demand. SMART local unions now have the chance to organize and recruit aggressively to meet workforce needs.
SMART Transportation Division on offense
SMART-TD members are on offense against the railroads and their Wall Street-driven Precision Scheduled Railroading scheme for the first time in recent memory. We have seen victories and progress on two-person crew and rail safety legislation in Kansas, Minnesota, Ohio and other states across the country, and we need to keep pushing. More on page 28.
The same goes for the safety and working conditions of our brothers and sisters operating on public transit systems. We have seen far too many shocking, brazen attacks on our members while they are simply doing their jobs, safely transporting passengers from point A to point B. Policymakers and community members alike need to hear our voices and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this cannot stand.
Organize today, win tomorrow
It is a new day for organized labor. Workers are organizing like they haven’t in generations, and 71% of Americans approve of unions: the highest percentage since the 1960s. And yet, the percentage of unionized workers remains too low, and we have seen the consequences in Maryland, Washington, Colorado and beyond. It’s time to strike while the iron is hot.
SMART Local 3 (Omaha, Nebraska) won a huge victory for area workers in May 2023, partnering with newly formed contractor Christopherson Plumbing, Heating & Air to bring the business into union signatory status. And unlike many organizing campaigns, this one was initiated by management.
“Approximately two and a half months ago, I was approached by Matt Christopherson, owner of Christopherson Plumbing, and Brian Wilhite, owner of Wilhite Services,” explained Local 3 Business Manager Jason Kirchhevel. “They came to me and explained how they were going to merge their respective companies.”
Christopherson had worked as a nonunion plumber for 15 years before starting his own business; when he became a contractor, he signed with Plumbers Local 16 in Omaha, where he experienced firsthand the value of organized labor and the union training model. When Christopherson and Wilhite decided to merge, Christopherson immediately began explaining the benefits of being a union contractor — the meeting with Local 3 soon followed.
“We set up a meeting and tour of our training center,” Kirchhevel added. “After several other meetings, giving tours, explanations of wages, benefits and training to the employees, everything fell in place. As of May 1, 2023, we signed the contract and created the partnership.”
Such signatory campaigns demonstrate the fact that union labor helps all parties — both employees and employer. Great work, Local 3!
Pictured above: Back row, left to right: Brian T. Wilhite (fifth-year apprentice), Steve Terwilleger (Local 3 business rep.), Jason Kirchhevel (Local 3 business manager/financial secretary-treasurer), Brian D. Wilhite (owner/member), Matt Christopherson (owner), Dustin Blessing (Local 3 journeyperson), Mitchel Anderson (first-year apprentice), Tyler Fox (journeyperson), Joshua Ross (Local 3 organizer). Front row, left to right: Treyton Foutch (pre-apprentice), Noah Nienaber (pre-apprentice), Michael Labenz (first-year apprentice), Anthony Davis (journeyperson).
For this episode of the Talking SMART podcast, we sat down with SMART Local 28 Business Agent Marvin Tavarez to discuss his journey going from working non-union to being organized into SMART. He breaks down some of the myths about organizing into our union versus taking a more traditional full apprenticeship route.
“Some people are like ‘Oh, that’s the backdoor, that’s the backdoor,’ ” says Tavarez. “But at the end of the day, it all comes down to educating the membership. You know, if you’re not organizing members in, you’re gonna be working against them and not with them.”
“If you’re not organizing members in, you’re gonna be working against them and not with them.”
Tavarez also discussed his efforts to help build a rank-and-file building trades movement, including organizing rallies attended by thousands in New York City.
“As soon as I got into the union,” says Tavarez, “I felt like I needed to give back, someway, somehow. I was getting so much from the union… what can I do to contribute? So, I started a rank-and-file movement on Facebook. Started with like five members. Within a year, year and a half, it grew to over 10,000 members on social media.”
At the end of this episode, in his last open mic segment before he retired at the end of May 2023, former SMART General President Joseph Sellers discusses the road ahead for SMART, as we work to train a new generation of members and staff up scores of large “megaprojects” across the United States and Canada.
Wage theft and worker misclassification are forms of exploitation that litter the construction industry, where unscrupulous employers take advantage of employees to pay them less than what they are owed. A recent Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study found that construction workers lose out on as much as $16,729 per year in income and job benefits; the EPI also reported that wage theft costs American workers as much as $50 billion per year — more than annual robberies, burglaries and motor vehicle thefts combined.
SMART locals are fighting against such practices from coast to coast – helping workers win the pay that they deserve.
“Wage theft is occurring everywhere in the construction industry, and employers will take advantage of those people who may not know what their rights are or have any idea of what prevailing wages are,” SMART Local 16 (Portland, Oregon) Business Manager Brian Noble explained in a recent episode of SMART News. “That’s who they prey on.”
SMART Local 16 has filed 10 prevailing wage complaints against 360 Sheet Metal, an aggressively anti-union contractor in Vancouver, Washington, whose workers previously went on strike after joining Local 16. The company was paying workers $12 to $15 an hour for fabricating duct in its shop, at a time when the prevailing wage (which applies to fabrication of ductwork in the state) was more than $65 an hour.
The Washington Department of Labor & Industries has resolved four of the 10 complaints so far.
“In those four cases,” Noble said, “they found that [the owner of 360 Sheet Metal] owed over $200,000 in back wages to 20 workers, and they assessed $115,000 in penalties for failing to pay prevailing wage in the shop.”
In Virginia, meanwhile, SMART Local 100 filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) alleging that a nonunion contractor on the Potomac Yards Metro Station project had misclassified sheet metal workers performing metal roofing work on the station. This resulted in them being paid approximately 60% less than the prevailing wage – hurting those workers and taking work away from Local 100.
“Misclassification is pretty rampant across the country,” explained Local 100 Marketing Director Chuck Sewell to SMART News. “Our contractors have to abide by certain rules, they have to pay certain rates, they know what the rates are, so that’s how they bid the projects. If you have these low-wage contractors come in and undercut everybody and get the project, it takes work hours from the local.”
The DOL investigation, which ended in the fall of 2022, found that the employees in question were, in fact, misclassified, resulting in more than $288,000 in back wages being recovered for eight workers.
Such wins against wage theft and worker misclassifications are critical for employees, ensuring that they are fairly compensated for their labor. They also demonstrate the crucial role unions play in representing all workers, including those who have yet to be organized.
“It’s important that we make sure all workers are represented and get what they deserve,” Noble concluded. “[It’s vital] that we stop these employers from undercutting our contractors and the industry, and most importantly, that these underrepresented workers are getting what’s truly owed to them.”
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report in January 2023, revealing a growth in domestic union membership and illustrating the urgency with which unions like SMART must organize nonunion workers and lobby for new labor laws.
American union membership grew by 273,000 workers in 2022 – matching the surge in organizing witnessed last year, as evidenced by a 53% increase in National Labor Relations Board union election filings.
“Despite the antiquated state of the United States’ labor laws, and despite the anti-worker attacks of CEOs like Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz and others across industries, workers kept organizing in 2022,” said SMART General President Joseph Sellers. “In our own union, we saw victories everywhere from Philadelphia to Ketchikan, Alaska. The fact that workers continue to persevere in the face of powerful, well-funded opposition serves as a reminder that we must keep up the fight to organize working people in every state.”
Unfortunately, despite high-profile victories at anti-labor corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, nonunion jobs were added to the U.S. economy at a faster rate, lowering American union density to 10.1% of the total workforce. That includes the construction industry, where the percentage of unionized workers dropped from 13.6% to 12.4%, and the transportation and warehousing sectors, where the number of workers represented by a union grew by 46,000, but union density dropped from 16.1% to 15.5%.
Even with those decreases, though, the Economic Policy Institute calculates that more than 60 million workers wanted to join a union in 2022 but couldn’t, often due to illegal union-busting by employers. Additionally, a Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans approve of labor unions – the highest number in almost 60 years.
“These statistics tell us two things,” explained SMART Director of Organizing Darrell Roberts. “First, U.S. labor law needs drastic overhaul, which Congress can take a first step towards by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Second, every member of this union – from international leadership to rank-and-file members across the country – needs to commit to bringing workers into our union at a mass scale.”
SMART members know first-hand the better pay, working conditions and family-sustaining benefits that unions achieve through collective bargaining and solidarity, Roberts added. That power can only be strengthened if we focus on bringing more workers into our ranks.
“The open shop is adding jobs at a rate that aims to threaten our market share, but we know that workers want what we can provide: good, middle-class jobs,” he said. “We will persevere in our organizing across the U.S. and Canada to make sure more workers can achieve that goal.”
A new analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates that misclassified construction workers lose out on as much as $16,729 per year in income and job benefits compared with what they would have earned as employees. The study, which broadly focuses on worker misclassification across multiple industries, not only demonstrates the economic cost faced by workers when their employer denies their basic rights on the job; it also reaffirms the need for Congress to pass pro-worker laws like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.
Worker misclassification is one of the more common ways bad-faith employers deprive workers of their rights and fair compensation. By incorrectly classifying an employee as an independent contractor, employers deprive workers of, among other things:
Overtime wage and hour protections;
The right to earn a minimum wage;
Eligibility to participate in state and federal unemployment insurance systems or qualify for workers’ compensation insurance;
National Labor Relations Act protections that guarantee workers’ rights to form a union and bargain collectively for better pay and benefits.
The EPI study analyzed the 11 professions most likely to be misclassified by employers, including home health aides, landscapers, truck drivers, janitors and nail salon workers. (Notably, the analysis pointed out, “people of color and immigrant workers are more likely to be in occupations where misclassification is common.”) For construction workers, the disparities for misclassified workers — especially when compared to the wages and benefits negotiated in a union contract — could mean the difference between a family-sustaining career and living paycheck to paycheck.
The devastating effects of worker misclassification demonstrate how important it is that SMART members and locals work to bring unorganized workers into the union.
“According to our calculations, illegal misclassification costs the typical construction worker between $10,177 and $16,729 per year,” the EPI wrote in its study. “These estimates are both conservative because we have not attempted to place a monetary value on the worker’s loss, when misclassified as an independent contractor, of rights guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act, including the possibility of union representation.”
The EPI added: “Policymakers should establish or expand the use of a strong, uniform protective legal test for determining employee status and pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would make it harder for employers to misclassify employees in order to prevent them from forming a union and bargaining collectively.”
“Contractors who misclassify their employees aren’t just depriving those workers of pay, benefits and protections; they are actively bringing down the wages and working conditions in local areas, and exploiting working families in order to strengthen their market share — taking jobs from SMART members in the process,” said SMART General President Joseph Sellers. “By fighting against misclassification and bringing those workers into SMART, we lift all workers up — including our current and future members.”
New chip plant megaprojects continue to create jobs for SMART sheet metal workers across North America – including in Arizona, where huge projects have led to unprecedented job growth and a boom in the membership of SM Local 259 (Phoenix, Ariz.)
“We’ve been able to increase our membership. In 2017-18, we had 500 members, and we currently have about 850, so it’s created a lot of organizing opportunities for us,” said Jeff Holly, Local 359 business manager and financial secretary-treasurer, during a recent interview with SMART News. “All of our funds are super healthy – health and welfare, pension funds, down to general fund activity at the hall. … It’s helped out the membership a lot.”
In Chandler, Ariz., an Intel chip plant is expected to employ more than 300 sheet metal workers at its peak and continue for two to three years. And in Phoenix, Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) – the world’s largest manufacturer of advanced microchips – is building its first major U.S. production site, more than tripling its initial planned investment. The project currently employs over 400 sheet metal workers and is expected to last for three to five years.
These chip plant projects specifically benefit SMART sheet metal workers, Holly explained.
“Everything’s got to be super clean, there’s a lot of filtration that goes into [chip plant construction] – a lot of scrubber work, exhaust, so they’re fairly labor intensive for sheet metal workers,” he said. “Most of the duct they’re using is rather large, so it ends up [requiring] more people than we used to use.”
The chip plant projects in Arizona mirror similar developments across the continent, including in Ohio, upstate New York and more. Like in Arizona, such projects provide opportunities not only for SMART sheet metal workers, but for locals aiming to organize, grow their membership and expand their market share. And while the Arizona chip plants were underway before the passage of labor-friendly legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, Holly told SMART News that such laws will benefit SMART members moving forward.
“Since the CHIPS Act was enacted,” he said “we’re looking at the possibility of having our first large-scale project labor agreement being signed out at the TSMC project, which is something that the Arizona State Building Trades has never had really any success [with]. Even though these weren’t planned when these acts were enacted, I think they’re going to pay dividends in the very near future.”
Whether chip plants, data centers, electric vehicle battery plants or infrastructure jobs, megaprojects are expected to continue breaking ground across the United States and Canada in the near future. Members interested in traveling to work these jobs should visit the Sheet Metal Job Bank for more information.
SMART members across the country enjoy higher wages, better healthcare and stellar pensions thanks to the strength of our collective bargaining. But we can only maintain our power when we control substantial portions of a given area’s market share — and local unions can only grow their market share if they have a significant (and expanding) membership. In other words, it is vital that we bring nonunion workers into SMART.
“Organizing members is extremely crucial for SMART,” Local 28 (New York City) Business Rep. Marvin Tavarez said during a recent appearance on SMART News. “The more members we organize, the more companies we organize, the more capacity we have to go after the market share that we’ve lost.”
Increasing our membership and signing more union contractors is the most effective way for unions like SMART to compete with the open shop — particularly when it comes to forcing bad-faith contractors to play by the rules. It’s also the lifeblood of the labor movement.
“The only way that unions thrive and move forward is when we organize members,” Tavarez added. “That’s the way we create more market share.”
Along with overviewing the importance of organizing, Tavarez pushed back on some of the misconceptions union workers sometimes have about their unorganized peers. Some current SMART members think that newly organized workers will take their jobs away. In reality, adding more members to our union gives us a greater chance of securing more work, providing more job opportunities for everyone. When our membership stagnates, the open shop gains more sway — allowing them to flood local markets with cheap labor that exploits workers and lowers area standards. By organizing, we grow our power and win more jobs for SMART workers.
Additionally, Tavarez said, some SMART members who entered the union via apprenticeship programs think that members who organized in are “card-buyers” who don’t care about the union. In practice, though, the opposite is usually the case. SMART members who previously worked nonunion are grateful for the opportunities they’ve gained and ready to fight tooth and nail for their SMART brothers and sisters. One case study: Tavarez himself.
“We’re all workers at the end of the day, and the only way we’re going to build real worker power is by organizing the unorganized.”
“Before I got organized, I had eviction notices everywhere I looked,” Tavarez told SMART News. “I didn’t have any medical benefits, I had subpar wages … it seemed like every day was a cloudy day.” After joining SMART, everything changed: He gained stability, financial security, healthcare and a family-sustaining career. Now, he works on behalf of his union every day as a business rep.
Laws like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS and Science Act have spurred a surge in new megaprojects across the country, from a Ford battery plant in Kentucky to a Micron factory in upstate New York. Locals in those areas need to grow in order to secure that work for current and future members — and all members have a role to play in making that happen.
“We’re all workers at the end of the day, and the only way we’re going to build real worker power is by organizing the unorganized,” Tavarez pointed out. “And that’s how members can help: By influencing [new members], embracing them, teaching them right from wrong and showing them that the union is the only way to go in order for them to feed their family, elevate themselves and really change their lives.”
SMART Local 2 in Kansas City participated in a new recruitment event in summer 2022. Earlier in the year, Business Manager Greg Chastain approached the Local 2 Women’s Committee to discuss how the local could reach a more diverse group when recruiting. The Women’s Committee immediately thought of Pride month.
Every June, Kansas City hosts a LGBTQ+ Pride parade and celebration that draws thousands of people — ideal for reaching every gender, age group and demographic. Local 2 supported the Women’s Committee’s suggestion by reserving two booths at the event.
When Pride month arrived, the Women’s Committee set up monitors with slideshows showing various aspects of the sheet metal trade and highlighting beautiful projects that have been made a staple of the city skyline. The booth also showcased multiple duct fittings and school projects, and the Women’s Committee passed out recruitment materials to visitors, including pamphlets about apprenticeships and benefits. The number one attraction at the booth was the virtual welder: Visitors of all age groups and experience levels were able to show their welding abilities.
All told, the Women’s Committee and Local 2 volunteers handed out swag and union information to more than 2,500 people. Several teachers and school counselors visited the booth, where they voiced that they would like to share information about apprenticeship programs and trades with their students to complement information about the college path.
Since June, Local 2 has seen an uptick in applications stemming from this event, and many applicants have already passed their tests and are awaiting placement. In other words, the LGBTQ+ Pride booths were a massive success.