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.”

By Local 20 Organizer Bradly Hayes

With organizing efforts in Indiana still at an all-time high, Local 20 recently participated in our first-ever organizing blitz to staff the Stellantis battery plant megaproject in Kokomo, Indiana. Thanks to the participation of Local 20 staff and the help of our Youth-to-Youth program, we were able to reach more than 500 jobsites, vocational schools, non-signatory shops and recruitment centers, ranging from Greenwood all the way to South Bend. We also handed out thousands of QR-code cards that linked to wage and benefit information for both non-signatory workers and the general public.

The blitz enabled us to boost membership as well as build our person-of-interest list in anticipation of other megaprojects coming to the state. Not only does this organizing benefit us as a whole; it also offers a life-changing opportunity for many people who are working nonunion.

I reached out to a few members who were organized this year to see what difference they experienced and their overall thoughts on joining the trade. Here is testimony from Xia Walker, who we organized into the apprenticeship program from Peterman Brothers:

Xia Walker
Xia Walker

“When it comes to my home life and work schedule compared to the big, nonunion HVAC company I was working for, I would have to say it is a night and day difference. The company I worked for did offer competitive pay, but that did not make up for the fact that I was paying almost $900 a month out of my wages just so my family could have insurance. I was also expected to work every day until the job was completed, which could range anywhere from six to 16 hours with no real time to rest in between or daily overtime to make it worth the headache.

“I hated it. I had no free time to spend with family and friends. I have five uncles in the trade who were consistently trying to recruit me so I could spend more time with family and friends and have better pay and benefits. I did enjoy some aspects of residential work, but commercial work is where it’s at. No more disgusting crawl spaces or small attics.

“Overall, I love my consistent work schedule. I can actually be home to spend time with my wife and kids throughout the work week. When I look back at it, I wish I would have stuck with the union back when I was 20; I would definitely be much further in my career than I am today.”

Next up: testimony from Clifton Beezley, who was recently organized from a nonunion fabrication shop and placed with one of Local 20’s contractors:

“The old job I came from did not have any professional mindset or desire to help me grow as an employee; they refused to share their knowledge with me so I could improve myself and expand my abilities in the trade. Since starting with Local 20, I have worked with a great group of knowledgeable workers who are more than willing to share their years of trade knowledge with me and want me to learn the trade and carry that same knowledge. The more I work with them, I see myself growing and gaining professional knowledge that I will eventually pass down to new members one day.

Clifton Beezley
Clifton Beezley

“The shop I was previously working for made me feel very underappreciated and unimportant, and it feels good to work somewhere that makes me feel appreciated and important again. As far as the benefits go, between my old job and now, it doesn’t compare. My entire family has healthcare coverage as an employee paid benefit, and I love it! The last job offered benefits, but the price made them basically unattainable. This has been a huge stress reliever for me and my family, and we couldn’t be happier. This new job has truly offered me life-changing opportunities.”

It is always nice to see how much our organizing can affect someone’s life for the better. Hopefully, reading these testimonies will help us all remember how important it is for us to continue to bring new and experienced members into the trade and make sure they are treated with respect. Clifton shared his experience with Local 20 with others in the shop he came from, as well as family and friends, which has resulted in more than 10 people joining the trade.

This is a prime example of why we always treat every member with solidarity and respect: We are going to need every bit of help we can get in the future, and the need for people is increasing every day.

Organize, organize, organize!

The massive Ford Blue Oval battery plant in Glendale, Kentucky, is a case study in how megaprojects are driving growth and sparking new organizing in the unionized sheet metal industry. Local 110 (Louisville, Kentucky) has nearly doubled in size since January 2023, bringing hundreds of previously unorganized workers into our union to meet unprecedented workforce demands.

“It’s been a very successful effort, from the organizing — planning and implementing our strategy — to the workers getting on site and doing the work,” said Local 110 Recording Secretary and Organizer Jeremy Waugh.

“You’re going to have generations of sheet metal workers that come out of [this project], and they’re spreading the word,” added Local 110 Organizer Anthony Adams. “This area will become very union strong.”

Once construction at Blue Oval is complete, the 1,500-acre battery park will be the largest in the world, consisting of two electric vehicle battery production plants and eventually employing thousands of workers. Local 110 members are currently installing roughly 37 miles of duct in the buildings — along with performing testing and balancing and architectural sheet metal work.

It’s a truly enormous job, explained site Superintendent and Local 110 member Ryan Mc Donaugh of Poynter Sheet Metal, who called it “the Super Bowl of sheet metal.” Poynter Sheet Metal Senior Project Manager and Local 110 member Andy Wright agreed.

“To me, it looks like this is part of the next industrial revolution,” he said.

Unions are working overtime to make sure this new industrial revolution is one that benefits workers, not just the CEOs of multinational corporations. That’s especially important in a right-to-work state like Kentucky, where organized labor has to beat back decades of misinformation about the union difference. From the moment Blue Oval was announced, Waugh said, the local treated staffing the project as an organizing drive, focused on strengthening the local and changing the lives of workers in the Bluegrass State.

So far, those efforts have been successful.

“I went nonunion right out of high school, so I was starting dirt cheap, no money at all,” recalled Local 110 journeyperson Chase Taylor. “The pay scale out here [in the union] is about double what I made at my old job.”

Taylor’s experience of joining the union and gaining a life-changing pay increase is one that the local hopes to extend to working people across Kentucky, Adams said, especially those from marginalized and underrepresented groups who may not have had access to good, union careers in the past.

“It’s prime time for us, in this state, to spread the word of what it means to be in a union, and what that gets you,” Waugh concluded.

The last Belonging and Excellence for All (BE4ALL) challenge of 2023 asks SMART members to share their stories in response to the question, “Why are you proud to be a SMART union member?” For Local 71 (Buffalo) sheet metal worker and organizer Andre Mayes, the answer to that question encompasses a lifelong journey – one that took him from working dead-end jobs and knowing nothing about unions, to helping fellow workers gain the life-changing benefits of SMART membership. Read more:

Buffalo sheet metal worker and organizer Andre Mayes (left) donates nose strips for face masks during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If I had to sum up what being a SMART member means to me in one word, it would be ‘purpose.’

“I was a Black child of poverty who grew up in the post-Reagan 90s with few prospects for my future. A very small number of kids I went to school with planned on going to college after high school, despite the fact that we were in the beginning of the era where every child was told they’d be a failure without a four-year degree. I was fortunate to have my grandmother as a role model who introduced me to ways of living that others with my background didn’t get to see, as she was the public relations director for the CBS affiliate in Buffalo. It allowed me to aspire, but with no clear path on how to get there.

“Fast forward almost two decades and I was a waiter with no real plans other than to make cash tips and have fun with my friends. It wasn’t until I became a truck driver at a large mechanical contractor that I was introduced to what unions do for workers. I always believed unions were antiquated, a relic of a bygone era, and that they only got in the way of economic development. As a truck driver, I made $9.25 per hour with absolutely no benefits – no healthcare (this was pre-Obamacare), no paid time off, no retirement, and I was lucky when I got a lunch break – all while working 55-hour weeks. The UA (United Association) and SMART members I delivered to at the same contractor made as much as four times my wages, plus generous retirement and healthcare packages that dwarfed my hourly pay on their own. I began to question what I thought I knew about unions. I made the determination that I was going to belong to one of these trades no matter what.

“For two years, I kept working as a driver and biding my time until the day I was a member. After my interview to join SMART, I received my rank letter for the upcoming apprenticeship class. The amount of joy I felt to see I was #11 on the list, knowing the union would take up to 20 apprentices, was my first real sense of purpose as a member. I had spent two years working to achieve this goal – longer than I’d ever worked any other job by 15 months – and it was close to being achieved.

“I found purpose in learning the actual craft of sheet metal through an intensive combination of on-the-job and classroom training. I was finally being given a chance to hone a set of skills that I enjoyed. I felt like I wanted to share this pride and purpose with everyone. Any friend I had who would talk about their woes at work would get an earful from me about our trade: a real education where every single thing you learn is relevant for work; classmates who you’ll spend your career getting to know; the opportunity to build the physical infrastructure of our community; dignity in retirement at an age that allows you to still enjoy what life has to offer. This was more than a job — it was a calling.

“That purpose led me to learn everything I could in the field, from HVAC fabrication and installation, to TAB, surveying and CAD. This alone would’ve been a fine place to end as I talked about running work and counting the days to retirement, but SMART wasn’t done giving me purpose yet.

“After I turned over, I became the fourth-year HVAC instructor. I was excited just to get the opportunity to teach the next round of sheet metal workers, but at the end of the interview for that role, I was asked where I wanted to be in 10 years by our then-Business Agent Paul Crist. I told him that I’d always wanted to be an organizer and would hope to have a chance for that down the line. As it turned out, he was asking for precisely that reason. Our then-organizer, Joe DeCarlo, was retiring, and Paul encouraged me to apply. I followed suit, and as a result, I have been preaching the gospel of organized labor for four years.

“Even writing this, it’s hard to believe that in 36 years, my life has ended up at this point. I never could’ve dreamed I’d be here 20, even 10 years ago. Being a part of the social movement that is organized labor, being a SMART member and a local officer has given me a sense of purpose only surpassed by my wife and children, none of whom I’d have without this union. I will forever be grateful that I am a SMART member.”

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.

Return to the Talking SMART index page.


Talking SMART is a member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network — working people’s voices, broadcasting worldwide 24 hours a day.

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.

Watch coverage of victories against wage theft and worker misclassification by SMART local unions.

“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.”