Coworkers and union siblings of Local 18 (Wisconsin) member Jason Fellenz have long admired his dedication and artistry as a craftsman; since entering the trade in 2002, Fellenz has steadily climbed the ranks at JF Ahern Company, where he’s now shop foreman. But in 2022, the spotlight on his skill as a sheet metal worker shined brighter than ever when Thorogood, the employee-owned Wisconsin boot company, showcased a replica boot that Fellenz designed and fabricated out of 16-gauge black iron.

“I absolutely have a passion for fabrication and metal work,” Fellenz said in an interview with Thorogood. “I am always interested in bettering my fabrication skills and testing my abilities. … Being a Wisconsin native, home of Thorogood, and wearing their boots for almost 20 years, I had the idea one day to make a boot that I can display; a boot that represents the foundation of the working class.”

Fellenz started his sheet metal career out of high school, working for a small residential HVAC company. “Quickly, I found out that I enjoyed the challenge of measuring up new jobs and going back to the shop to fabricate the metal,” he said — however, he didn’t enjoy the service work. So when his dad read about a large union mechanical contractor (Ahern) looking for sheet metal apprentices, he applied without hesitation. From there, he transitioned from pre-apprentice, to apprentice, to foreman, to shop foreman — sticking with Ahern throughout and developing a passion for mentorship along the way. He was already overseeing 13 colleagues as a fourth-year apprentice, and he became a foreman after only six months in the field.

“Making it fun while teaching and mentoring the future apprentices was always a thing of mine,” he told Thorogood, adding that he moved into the shop foreman role in order to work on more jobs and create a legacy of helping younger workers.

Fellenz’s affinity for teaching makes him a natural fit for the union. A constant advocate for the trade, he believes the enormous variety of crafts and skills in the unionized sheet metal industry make it a great career path for a huge range of young workers — not to mention the training and compensation SMART members gain through collective bargaining.

“Being compensated for the knowledge and training put forth is why I’m able to earn a family-supporting wage package that includes retirement and health benefits,” he explained. “SMART has helped realize those benefits to the employers by offering skilled workers on demand. Being able to learn a craft that I can carry anywhere in the world is beneficial to my family’s growth and change.”

“I’m always interested in bettering my fabrication skills and testing my abilities,” he said in an interview for Ahern’s website. “You start from raw material and construct an object through tons of different processes with your own hands. Whether it’s a piece of art or a bracket of some sort, it took layout and several steps to accomplish.”

Fellenz used AutoCAD to design his replica of the boot, spending six hours in his home studio drafting a model based on his own shoe. After that, he dedicated another two weeks of fabrication and welding, crafting a stunning iron representation of working-class grit. The result, Fellenz told Ahern, is one of his favorite projects yet.

“When all is said and done, the product will outlast a lifetime and create ideas for the future tradesmen,” he declared.

The National Mall in Washington, DC now prominently features a 12-foot-diameter, stainless steel memorial statue that was fabricated by SMART members and built to honor Native American veterans.

The National Museum of the American Indian dedicated the National Native American Veterans Memorial during a Veterans Day ceremony on November 11, 2022. The statue was built by SMART Local 124 (Okla.) members working at signatory contractor RedLand Sheet Metal, a Native American-owned shop in Oklahoma City.

Prior to the ceremony, on a rainy and windy day in the nation’s capital, more than 1,500 Native veterans and their families participated in a procession around the museum and onto the National Mall.

“We are a stainless steel custom fabrication company,” said Tammy Adams, president of RedLand and a member of the Choctaw Nation, following the dedication ceremony in DC. “We have been a union shop for about five years now. My father was a veteran of the Korean War — he was a Navy veteran. So, this was a passion project for us.”

In addition to being a signatory contractor and a Native-owned company, Adams says one half of RedLand’s employees are Native American.

“I did everything,” said RedLand stainless fabricator and Choctaw Nation member Lamar Lester, who is also a member of SMART Local 124. “I welded and put together the lances, added the rings to the lances. I was in on slip-rolling of the metal, the welding process, the grinding process.”

Watch coverage of the dedication ceremony in episode three of SMART News.

RedLand co-owner Henry Adams, who is a 40-year veteran of the sheet metal industry and married to Tammy, said the circular monument is made out of 3/8” steel plate, and its fabrication was not unlike some standard HVAC projects.

“The design is a lot like ductwork,” he said. “Those two sides that you see, you’re slip-rolling those sides the way you would a round reducer.”

During the memorial dedication ceremony, numerous speakers underscored how Native Americans have long served in the U.S. military at rates far higher than the national average for non-Natives.

“Native people fought for this country, a country, candidly, that occupied their homelands, disrespected their tribal sovereignty and confined their people to reservations,” said Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “Yet, they fought in every major conflict for the last two centuries.”

Tammy Adams, Henry Adams and Lamar Lester all underscored how meaningful the memorial project was to them personally, both while they were working on it and now that it has been completed and installed.

“You know what this is going to mean to a lot of people,” said Henry. “And it’s going to be around as long as our country is.”

Tammy noted that it was “incredibly moving” to be in DC for the ceremonial procession and dedication. “It is a testament to Native veterans.”

Near the end of the dedication ceremony, just as the sun was setting in Washington, DC, statue designer Harvey Pratt lit the flames at the bottom of the circular statue. Pratt is a renowned Oklahoma-based Native American artist and member of both the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.

“The deeper you get into it, the more the emotional attachment comes to it,” said Lester. “It’s the greatest project I’m ever going to have an opportunity to work on. And the further I get away from it, the more it means to me.”