The Partners in Progress 2024 conference brought sheet metal and signatory management leaders to Orlando, Florida, from February 27-28. With a conference theme of “The Future Is Now,” labor and management representatives came together to focus on seizing this moment of opportunity for SMART sheet metal workers and our union contractors.

Day one sets the stage

The conference kicked off with a joint presidential address by SMART General President Michael Coleman and SMACNA President Carol Duncan, who – together – described the steps our organizations have taken to increase work, recruiting and growth prospects across North America.

Duncan provided an overview of the jobs being created by a surge of megaprojects in both the United States and Canada, pointing out that only by working together can local unions and signatory contractors make sure those projects are completed by high-road union employers and workers. Coleman agreed, noting the importance of collaborating to create cultures that are inclusive, welcoming and that help the unionized sheet metal workforce grow.

“People are coming to us for a better life,” he said. “But we must make sure people can find it. If our doors are closed, I think both Carol and I will feel that we failed.”

Coleman outlined many of the collaborative successes SMART and SMACNA have already achieved: the formation of the SMART, SMACNA and International Training Institute (ITI) Belonging and Excellence for All (BE4ALL) initiative, which has distributed menstrual kits to JATCs organization-wide, conducted bias and belonging trainings and recently published its groundbreaking rapid response protocol; legislation and union-friendly elected officials that SMART and SMACNA lobbied and mobilized for collectively; and much more. He also discussed how vital it is for local unions and contractors to embrace the I Got Your Back Campaign, promoting a mentorship model that helps ALL workers succeed in our industry.

“We often hear – and say – that we want to leave things better than when we arrived. Now is the time to do just that,” Coleman said. “Yes, it will take our best efforts. But our entire industry and everyone who puts their trust in us deserve nothing less.”

Following a keynote address by award-winning speaker Victoria Labalme, who garnered a standing ovation from attendees for her session on “risk-forward” leadership, SMART and SMACNA leaders got to work in breakouts. Sessions included presentations on maximizing indoor air quality work opportunities by NEMI Administrator Lisa Davis; a panel featuring Coleman, Duncan and Procore Vice President Rubiena Duarte on building and sustaining healthy organizational cultures in the union sheet metal industry; a training on utilizing the rapid response protocol by SMART House Counsel Luke Rebecchi and Felhaber Larson’s Dan Kelly; and an overview of the importance of building local mentoring programs by NEMI’s Davis and Tammy Meyen of the ITI.

Day one concluded with an afternoon general session. Dushaw Hockett, a key partner in the BE4ALL initiative, presented on the importance of strong, local labor-management partnerships that are focused on leveraging strengths, networks, community partners and more to create opportunities for workers and contractors alike. Clark Ellis of Continuum Advisory Group addressed the future of the construction industry, overviewing trends, challenges and opportunities by telling the story of what one worker’s career could look like in the near future – if the union sheet metal industry takes steps to recruit and retain ALL workers, including women, people of color, the formerly incarcerated and beyond.

And finally, Coleman, Duncan, SMART General Secretary-Treasurer Joseph Powell and SMACNA CEO Aaron Hilger conducted a fireside chat with attendees, fostering an open dialogue on how labor and management can work together to take advantage of this moment. Leaders talked about programs that have been implemented to help solve workforce challenges, from BE4ALL and mentoring initiatives to the SMART Incentive Program, and spoke frankly about the steps we need to take to strengthen our industry hold.

Day two: Attendees depart with purpose

Union sheet metal industry leaders picked up where they left off on day two of Partners in Progress, beginning with a morning full of breakout sessions intended to help local unions and contractors secure work and expand market share.

SMART Local 91 (Rock Island, Illinois) Business Manager Eric Meirhaeghe and Illowa Sheet Metal Contractors Association Chapter Executive Paul Elgatian joined Procore Vice President Duarte for a session on open and effective communication between teams, demonstrating how a relationship built on clear and intentional communication can create and secure work for SMART members and contractors. SMART International Organizer Will Scott, Dushaw Hockett and SMACNA Sacramento Valley Chapter’s Cheryl Sprague held a session titled “Collaboration for Progress,” diving deep into the characteristics of impactful partnership and underlining how collaborations with community groups and nonprofit organizations can boost our industry’s profile. And SMART Member Assistance Program Coordinator Chris Carlough co-presented a session titled “Beyond the Basic: A Renewed Approach to Mental Health and Wellness” with Cort Consulting’s Ben Cort, exploring the importance of addressing mental health in our industry – and what SMART has done so far in the arena.

The two general sessions sent attendees on their way with a focus on transforming their local areas to achieve success. Steven English, a 22-year engineer and head of Steven English Coaching and Training, presented on “Building Leadership Culture: Inspiring and Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders” – helping SMART and SMACNA members explore strategies, principles and best practices for cultivating leadership at each level of our respective organizations. The next speaker, Dr. Michael F. Barnes, also addressed the importance of culture, particularly creating inclusive and positive workplaces in order to benefit workers’ mental health. Barnes addressed topics including hazing and bullying, open communication, mental health awareness and more, helping equip attendees with knowledge and tools to create workplaces that put members’ well-being first.

The conference concluded with a moving keynote speech from best-selling author Kevin Brown and closing reflections from General President Coleman and SMACNA President Duncan, who each noted the importance of collaborating not just in name but in action as we look to the future.

“Our collaborative efforts have demonstrated alignment between labor and management on most issues we face. We’re not divided by our differences; rather, we’re propelled by our common goals,” said Duncan.

“It has been inspiring to hear what the leaders in this room are doing to meet this moment,” Coleman concluded. “All of you – from the labor side, from the management side – are here today because you are committed to hard work. You came here to form relationships with each other, to identify the challenges and opportunities ahead, to brainstorm and come up with collective solutions that will strengthen and expand our unionized workforce.”

Communities across the nation are once again facing a dangerous air quality crisis due to smoke emanating from the Canadian wildfires. As people across North America seek refuge indoors, it is crucial to understand that the smoke and pollutants from the wildfires can easily infiltrate indoor spaces through various openings, resulting in higher concentrations of harmful substances.

One such substance, PM2.5, is airborne particulate matter smaller than 1/70th the diameter of a human hair and can contain dangerous levels of heavy metals and other toxins. A study conducted by Stanford University revealed that this type of air pollution may be up to 10 times more hazardous for children than other forms of air pollution.

In light of this alarming situation, SMART and SMACNA have jointly put forth several essential steps for the public during wildfires:

  • Close doors and windows. This helps to limit the intrusion of smoke into indoor spaces.
  • Verify proper operation and maintenance of ventilation systems. Just like electrical wiring and plumbing, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems can cause damage if mishandled. It is advisable to seek the assistance of skilled and trained HVAC professionals to ensure the optimal functioning of your system.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation rates. Your HVAC system should provide the required minimum ventilation rate. Additionally, if applicable, disable the economizer or eco-friendly option on your system. An HVAC professional will be able to guide you through this process.
  • Avoid creating negative air pressure. Do not turn off your ventilation/HVAC system while running exhaust fans in your bathroom or kitchen, as this can create negative air pressure, causing untreated outdoor air to seep in through openings, cracks, etc.
  • Check filters. Regularly inspect and clean the filters in your HVAC system. In most cases, a MERV 13-rated filter or a HEPA filter will provide optimal filtration. It is recommended to consult with an HVAC professional to determine the best filter for your unit.

The hazardous conditions resulting from the wildfires also emphasize the importance of conducting a Ventilation Verification Assessment for commercial, apartment and school buildings. This assessment, carried out by certified technicians, provides essential data to identify any corrective actions required to combat pollutants in both indoor and outdoor air.

Safeguarding our health in times of dangerous air quality relies on the presence of high-quality HVAC and ventilation systems. By following the recommended steps and seeking professional assistance, people across North America can minimize the infiltration of harmful pollutants and create a safer indoor environment for themselves and their families.

In another step forward for SMART and the unionized sheet metal industry, SM Local 66 (Seattle) and SMACNA-Western Washington announced a joint initiative – the first in the industry – to make lactation pods available to new mothers, starting in April 2023. This is an important step that will help mothers in the sheet metal trade return to work without compromising convenience, privacy and comfort.

“They’ll have a seat, sink, HVAC, electricity for the breast pump and phone chargers, plus a refrigerator to keep the breast milk cold during the remaining hours of the workday,” reads a SMACNA-Western Washington press release. “The lactation pods are designed for comfort and accessibility and will keep women from the embarrassment of getting walked in on. They will also make it easier to keep breast milk fresh, reduce the difficulty of locating and getting to a private space and provide storage for their pumping gear.”

Returning to work as a new mother has historically been a very different experience for tradeswomen compared with those working in an office, for example. Many SMART sisters in the Pacific Northwest have reported that they frequently had to pump in places where privacy and peace of mind were anything but guaranteed, including port-a-potties, cars and more.

The Local 66-SMACNA-Western Washington partnership will aim to rectify those concerns: Through an exclusive partnership with a custom fabricator, the SMACNA-Western Washington press release adds, “the clean, sanitary pods will be digitally secure via an app.”

Local 66 – both leadership and the local’s Women’s Committee – collaborated with SMACNA-Western Washington, the Northwest Labor Management Organizational Trust and the Western Washington Sheet Metal JATC to raise funds for this landmark project. In addition to providing vital services to new mothers, the lactation pods will help strengthen Local 66 and SMART as our union seeks to grow across North America.

“This type of initiative demonstrates our ongoing commitment to progress; to making sure all workers are welcome on the job,” said SMART General President Joseph Sellers. “This is a groundbreaking first step as we continue to organize workers across our two nations.”

Local 36 sheet metal worker-owner Rochelle Bonty was recognized by the Missouri Women in Trades (MOWIT) in early April, when she earned an honorable mention in MOWIT’s 2022 Contractor of the Year category. Bonty, the first Black woman in the Local 36 apprenticeship program, started her business – RMB Mechanical, a Local 36 signatory contractor – in 2020.

“I wanted to open my own business for my family, for the industry because the number of MBE/WBE [minority business enterprise/woman business enterprise] businesses are few, and for others who look like me so they can be inspired to do the same,” Bonty told the Labor Tribune. “It’s hard, but others need to see it’s not impossible.” 

Bonty entered the sheet metal trade out of a love for working with her hands and the desire to create something out of nothing; “I enjoy seeing the process of renovation and preserving the history of the city I grew up in,” she said. In 2020, that love for her craft spurred her to become a union signatory sheet metal contractor. She had been working at Ball Park Village for Clay Piping systems when the pandemic started – she was laid off, and although she returned to her previous employer, she began researching the process of starting one’s own business. Given the emphasis the pandemic has placed on indoor air quality, she immediately thought of HVAC duct cleaning.

“For me, that was the simplest thing to start, and I didn’t need as much money as opposed to taking on a major HVAC contract,” she told the Tribune. “I started making calls to businesses and asking if they needed their air ducts cleaned.” 

After contacting the St. Louis Development Corporation, they offered her a grant for air duct cleaning.

“That was my first contract,” she added.

Since then, Bonty’s trailblazing career has moved forward at breakneck speed. She recently became the first Black woman to serve on the board of SMACNA St. Louis, and she has aimed to inspire more women and high school graduates to join the trades via her work as a member of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) St. Louis chapter and as a St. Louis Building Union Diversity (BUD) program mentor. Such efforts are especially significant as SMART aims to strengthen our union by organizing, recruiting and retaining workers from across all backgrounds.

“I wasn’t sure if I could [have a career in the trades], but I did,” she said. “I hope to be an example for others so they can overcome their doubts and fears and do things uncommonly in the construction industry.”

To help get through the cold winter, low-income homeowners in Chicago and Chicago Heights received free furnace and boiler tune-ups to keep them safe and warm. This initiative was the result of a partnership between Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago, SM Local 73 and SMACNA Greater Chicago.

When the risks associated with COVID-19 limited Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago’s ability to perform interior home repair, the organization met the challenge by broadening the services it provides to families and elderly homeowners. As part of this transition, Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago led an outreach effort with the intent of assessing its clients’ unique needs, while providing valuable referrals and connections to other resources in the community. From ensuring food security to providing PPE, Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago has responded to the crisis by providing a safer, more secure home environment for area residents.

In December 2020, a partnership with Local 73 and SMACNA Greater Chicago provided warmer, safer home environments for low-income families in preparation for winter. This initiative, called Warm the Metro, enlists union members and local HVAC contractors to visit more than 50 homes annually, offering free tune-up services on boilers and furnaces. This year, the Warm the Metro partnership provided tune-ups in 64 homes, plus full replacements in five.

“Furnace and boiler tune-ups are exactly the type of support our homeowners need to stay safe and warm through the winter. We are delighted to continue this partnership for a second year, and so grateful to our SMACNA and Local 73 friends,” said Wanda Ramirez, CEO of Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago.

In addition to providing improved heating efficiency, safety and indoor comfort, a regular furnace tune-up can spell the difference between a five- to 10-year and a 15- to 20-year life expectancy for a heating system. To complete the tune-ups, Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago partnered with South Suburban Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., and RD’s HVAC, Inc. for the Warm the Metro initiative.

“The men and women of Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 73 have a long history of giving back to our community,” said Local 73 President and Business Manager Raymond Suggs. “We are proud to work with Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago to Warm the Metro in preparation for winter. The danger posed by COVID-19 makes it more important than ever to have a safe, warm, comfortable home to protect residents’ health and safety this winter. We look forward to future partnerships with Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago and continuing to provide and give back our services to those in need.”

The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) applaud the efforts of the Biden Administration as they continue to innovate and press forward to ensure safe and clean air. The air we breathe within our buildings and schools must be safe for the people who live, learn and work in them. This clean air endeavor is of the upmost necessity, and we believe the administration is working to place that importance front and center with their efforts.

SMART and SMACNA have a vested interest in the success of the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge. The training, skills, and certifications our members have in indoor air quality, ventilation and filtration is the cornerstone of our craft. The quality of training and work our members and contractors do are important to us, as is the people who breathe the air that we deliver.

SMART’s partnership with SMACNA has been providing skilled, trained, and certified workers to respond in a timely manner to meet industry demands for more than a century.

SMART, with more than 203,000 members, provides classroom, hands-on, on-the-job and rapid response training to its members through federal and state registered apprenticeships in more than 150 state of the art training centers located throughout the United States and Canada.

SMACNA, representing 3,500 signatory contracting firms with more than 100 chapters throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and Brazil, employ the SMART member apprentices (in an earn-while-you-learn program) who are mentored by trained, skilled and certified journeypersons.

SMART and SMACNA have witnessed the ups and downs of the HVAC industry in the past. Our membership and contractor base has always adapted to the challenges and grown with the needs of the industry. We feel confident in the ability of SMART, SMACNA and other Contractor Partners to meet and exceed the needs of the work ahead.