Day two of the first-ever SMART Leadership Conference served as a continuation of day one: After hearing from a variety of speakers during the joint and industry-specific sessions, sheet metal and Transportation Division leaders decamped for more breakout sessions, carrying on the demanding work of educating themselves, forging relationships and pursuing Growth Through Unity for our union.  

After General President Joseph Sellers called the conference to order, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler kicked off the joint session with a compelling speech, calling on SMART locals to seize this moment across industries by bringing more workers into the fold and mobilizing members to achieve more victories.  

“I’m so honored to be here with you this morning, because I’m feeling pretty good about our future,” Shuler said. “Growth Through Unity is exactly what we need in this moment.” 

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler

After recognizing the efforts of railroad workers in their battle against brutal attendance policies and for a fair national rail contract, the first female AFL-CIO president turned her attention to the future. The news media, Shuler noted, has been dominated by stories of worker activity: from organizing in new areas like breweries, coffee shops, REI and Apple, to walkouts, pickets and strikes, this is a moment unlike any other in the recent history of organized labor. For that reason, she said, “We need to be taking risks. We want to capture the energy that we’re seeing out there.” 

Shuler referenced several of the ongoing fights in the labor movement, specifically the Amazon organizing campaign in Bessemer, Alabama – where AFL-CIO affiliates, including SMART, sent organizers in a strong display of unity. That type of bold, collaborative action, with unions across industries coming together for the betterment of workers, is crucial for the future of our movement. 

“CEO pay is 324 times higher than the average worker’s pay,” she said. “That’s absolutely unsustainable, it’s unfair, it’s wrong. So how do we balance those scales? We organize.” 

Organizing is more important than ever, Shuler elaborated, as we emerge into a future with ever-advancing technology, a needed focus on clean energy and other changes to our traditional sectors. Technology has transformed the sheet metal and transportation industries throughout our union’s history, and it will continue to do so at an even greater rate. But technological advancement can’t come at the expense of working people. 

“If someone wants to develop technology that’s going to improve our workplaces, they should start by talking to the people who will work with it – us,” Shuler declared.  

The same goes for clean energy. As industries change and governments around the world implement new policies to mitigate the effects of climate change, unions like SMART need to make their presence felt and ensure workers have a seat at the table. That can only happen, Shuler explained, if we have allies in elected office. The American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act – signed today – and the Senate’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are all vital pieces of legislation that will help put SMART members to work on an enormous number of projects in the new future. Those opportunities evaporate if we return to an anti-worker Congress.  

AFL-CIO President Shuler met with the BE4All Committee after her speech

“To make our vision of the future a reality, we need to elect people who will have our back, who share our values,” Shuler said, concluding her speech with a rallying cry for SMART leaders across the continent. “Let’s do what unions do. We join together and fight back … when they say game over, we say game on.” She then gathered with members of the BE4All committee, putting words into action to help SMART better represent all workers.  

Shuler was followed by AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD) President Greg Regan, who has worked with SMART TD leadership on matters related to BNSF’s Hi-Viz attendance policy, national rail contract negotiations and more. Like Shuler, Regan praised the unprecedented solidarity uniting railroad unions across TTD and vowed to grow that unity; to fight tirelessly for the rights and protections transportation workers deserve.  

“There is a level of strength and solidarity in the freight rail labor movement right now that is unmatched,” he said. “We are going to win this fight; we are going to deliver on the contract rail workers have earned.”   

AFL-CIO TTD President Greg Regan

Walt Ingram, executive director and CEO of the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA), took the stand to speak on the importance of using programs like USA to engage with members, from the jobsite to the great outdoors. He then presented the 2022 SMART USA Conservationist of the Year Award to Local 80 (Detroit, Michigan) Business Agent Bryan McConnell. 

Also speaking were Matt Haney, a California State Assemblymember representing the state’s 17th Assembly District, and Rick Martinez, executive director of the California Fire Foundation – an organization devoted to providing critical support to victims, firefighters and communities affected by wildfire and disaster throughout California.  

Haney spoke about the challenges facing San Francisco, particularly housing shortages and a need for improved public transit, and the role union workers will play in overcoming those obstacles: “We’re not here to talk about good jobs or middle-class jobs, we’re here to talk about good, middle-class, union jobs.”  

Martinez used his remarks to speak on the mission of the California Fire Foundation. The foundation is SMART’s chosen charity for the duration of the leadership conference – a mark of our union’s ongoing support for the brave men and women putting their lives on the line to protect Californians from the ongoing effects of disastrous fires. At the time of writing, SMART locals have already raised more than $100,000 for the California Fire Foundation. 

SMART TD President Jeremy Ferguson (left) and GP Joseph Sellers (center) applaud FRA Administrator Amit Bose (right).

Throughout the morning, the joint session highlighted SMART’s relationship with elected and federal officials. That peaked with a rousing, standing-ovation-garnering speech from Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Amit Bose, whose tenure at the FRA has led to unprecedented access and a seat at the table for our union. In his remarks, Bose touched on a variety of topics: the proposed federal rule requiring two-person crews on freight trains, funding to expand and modernize freight and passenger rail systems, and much more.  

“As we forge ahead with new passenger and freight rail projects, the FRA understands the important role SMART members will play,” Bose said. “My staff and I will strive to continue to be available to you and listen to your concerns.” 

Read about Bose and TTD President Greg Regan’s remarks in greater detail by visiting the Transportation News section of our website. 

After the joint session, Transportation Division and sheet metal leaders dispersed for industry breakout sessions; on the TD side, that included another session with FRA Administrator Bose, while sheet metal attendees heard updates from Dushaw Hockett on the work of the BE4All Committee; Erin Gatling on Voyager, a new software system designed to improve local union operations; Dave Bernett, administrator of NEMIC, who outlined how the organization is working to secure more work and market share for SMART; and Lori Wood, who reviewed the welcome fact that the Sheet Metal Workers National Pension Fund is in the green zone and provided an overview of the SMART Local Unions & Councils Pension Fund. Then, attendees separated for more breakouts, with topics including Time Management, Technology Shaping the Sheet Metal Industry, Indoor Air Quality and more.  

It was a long day, with local leaders committing to the work SMART members deserve. And just like day one, it was all in pursuit of one goal: strengthening our union.  

On the first day of the first-ever SMART Leadership Conference, Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson updated hundreds of SMART officers on the progress his administration has made in strengthening our union since his administration took office in 2019.

It was President Ferguson’s first opportunity to address a large, live assemblage of the union since the Second SMART General Convention in Las Vegas.

“We have accomplished so much together, much more than I ever imagined, with the new bonds that we have made and the promises to the delegates that we would unite this entire union for the betterment of all of our members,” he said.

He noted that the administration has made some rapid and meaningful progress, even with the challenges the membership as a whole has faced since 2019. He emphasized strides made in safety with the online Safety Condition Report introduced in early 2021, education and an accountability to membership.

Education-wise, the change from the old regional meeting model to a leadership summit such as the one in San Francisco and the regional training seminar models for a more locally-oriented experience was a shock to some, but the feedback has been largely positive from those who’ve attended.

“It was not easy to break from previous tradition, but I was adamant that we train to be the best. This week we are going to teach many important skills and values needed to be the best. We are going to lead the next generation to be better and more skilled than we are here today,” he said. “We are going to give them advantages that we were never afforded. That’s what true leadership does, they make it better for their successors.”

He noted that the years since his administration took office have been anything but normal.

“It’s been one challenge after another from court cases and other crises. There’s rail carriers’ implementation of PSR [Precision Scheduled Railroading] and refusal to reward their essential workers with a meaningful contract, brutal assaults on our bus and transit members, the supply-chain meltdown that’s followed, the exodus that is happening with good loyal workers being ground down by attendance policies and choosing to walk away from their hard-earned pensions just to have time with their family,” he said.

“Times have gotten tough here lately with such drastic shortages of bus drivers and railroad workers, but when things get tough, I know that the one thing we’re not afraid to do in the face of adversity is to show up and step up. We’re not fearful of the challenges that we see ahead after what we’ve been through.”

President Ferguson later in the day addressed a Transportation Division general session consisting of about 200 general committee and state board officers in attendance.

In it, he updated the audience on Presidential Emergency Board 250, saying that labor’s performance had the carriers on their heels. The railroads’ case essentially boiled down to “labor’s being greedy.”

“There’s no union on the outside. We’ve all got each other’s backs,” he said of the United Rail Unions, who pooled resources and stated labor’s case as a unified body before the PEB in July. “It is the best we could have done.”

Other topics included the in-progress relocation of the TD executive offices from North Olmsted, Ohio to a new site in Independence, Ohio. When the move is complete, that relocation will save a projected $2 million for the union over the new 10-year lease.

He urged officers to promote the benefits offered internally through the union, such as the TD Voluntary Short Term Disability and Discipline Income Protection programs rather than job insurance programs run by outside entities.

The cost of DIPP will decrease, effective Oct. 1, and more reductions will come in the future if the number of contributors to the program goes up.

“The more people we get in the fund, the lower we can go,” he said of the DIPP.

To close, the organizing department has been reinvigorated with new documents and an enthusiastic squad of people telling new hires why being a member of TD is the right choice. Chief of Staff Jerry Gibson heads up the department that has been inundated with new hires. “All our hard work is starting to pay off,” President Ferguson said.

SMART General President Joseph Sellers opened the inaugural SMART Leadership Conference on Monday, with local leaders from sheet metal and transportation gathering in San Francisco for four days of hard work on behalf of SMART members across North America. The theme, “Growth Through Unity,” encompassed the focus of the day: in the joint session, sheet metal and Transportation Division sessions, and breakouts, SMART leadership focused on how to secure the future of our union – together.  

Leaders emphasize unity in joint session 

In his opening remarks, General President Sellers summarized the many events of the last several years for attendees, noting that political developments in both the United States and Canada have created unprecedented opportunity for our union – as well as the labor movement at large.  

He began by recounting some of the legislative victories achieved for SMART members across North America: huge investments in the union transportation and sheet metal industries in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, pension protection in the American Rescue Plan, project labor agreements on federal projects above $35 million in the United States; and the achievement of the Labour Mobility Tax Credit and real apprenticeship funding for SMART brothers and sisters in Canada. He also noted the recently proposed rule for two-person crews and the importance of working together, across sheet metal and transportation, to secure that victory for SMART rail workers.  

SMART General Secretary-Treasurer Joseph Powell

“We must be proactive and seize our opportunities to strengthen and grow our union,” Sellers said. “We must build our capacity and capitalize on union-friendly administrations in both the U.S. and Canada.”  

That being said, he pointed out, all those gains will be in danger if anti-labor politicians take back Congress. Elections in battleground states don’t only matter for locals in those states – they will impact the future of our entire union. 

“Either we determine the future of our union, or our adversaries will do it for us,” Sellers declared. “So let’s organize, mobilize, recruit and fight like hell to increase our density and our market share across industries.”  

General Secretary-Treasurer Joseph Powell elaborated on General President Sellers’ speech, noting the need to accelerate our union’s growth while touching on the battles facing the Transportation Division and the ways SMART has used technology to expand member services without increasing expenses. The general secretary-treasurer pointed out that, given the growth in construction jobs, sheet metal locals need to increase their organizing, recruitment and retention.  

“We have learned at this point that we can’t predict the future,” he said. “But two things we know for certain. One is that there is an enormous amount of opportunity ahead. The other is that we will need to work hard to make the most of that opportunity. Together, we will do just that.”  

SMART TD President Jeremy Ferguson

Jeremy Ferguson, president of the SMART Transportation Division, used his opening remarks to reflect on the massive efforts to bring SMART together in the past – particularly the 2019 General Convention – and vowed to work tirelessly across sheet metal and transportation to make our union stronger than ever. Ferguson also spoke on the furious fight to safeguard and expand working conditions for Transportation Division members against corporate onslaught, particularly the Class 1 freight railroads.  

“When things get tough, I know that the one thing we’re not afraid to do in the face of adversity is to show up and step up,” he said. “We’re not fearful of the challenges that we see ahead, after what we’ve been through.”  

Ferguson touched on the ways the Transportation Division has dedicated itself to better serving members, from an app that allows workers to report safety violations, to the rolling out of SMART University, to the improvement of the Transportation Newspaper – including a column written by Ferguson titled “What your union is doing for you.” All of these initiatives, he explained, are part of the Transportation Division’s effort to strengthen, to unify, to come together and meet the needs of the membership as a whole.  

Through all the difficulties of the last several years, a bright spot has emerged: friendly figures in government and federal agencies. Ferguson noted that, thanks to relationships with FRA Administrator Amit Bose, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and others, SMART members have a voice in the halls of power. And most importantly, he declared, the unity and solidarity of SMART provides a road map to a better future for all members.  

“The changes we made in 2020 that we were all a part of have opened the doors to lasting progress for our organization and hope, even as we fight through all that the carriers and their Wall Street oligarchs throw at us to grind us down, such as draconian attendance policies,” Ferguson said.  

Also speaking during Monday’s joint session were SMART TD California State Legislative Director (SLD) Louie Costa and SMART SM Local 104 (San Francisco) Business Manager Rick Werner. In each of their speeches, Costa and Werner touched on the histories of union transportation and sheet metal in California: the challenges, the battles fought and won, the ongoing struggles and the great potential for growth across all SMART crafts. Notably, both Costa and Werner recounted specific instances where unity – between different locals, and between sheet metal and transportation industries – helped spur the success of SMART.  

“It is only together, as one, in all crafts, that we can, and will, solidify the theme of this year’s conference: ‘Growth Through Unity,’” Costa said.  

GP Sellers, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, GST Powell

To cap off Monday’s joint session, the SMART Leadership Conference welcomed San Francisco Mayor London Breed and United States Surface Transportation Board (STB) Chair Marty Oberman – both figures who have showed themselves to be allies of working people and SMART. In her speech, Mayor Breed recapped the efforts of the San Francisco government, under her leadership, to bolster the rights of organized labor, including raises for union city employees and the CityBuild program – a pipeline for people from underserved communities to enter the unionized construction trades. She also addressed the city-wide project labor agreement signed into law in 2019.  

“Having a strong PLA is important to ensure not only that we get these projects done, but the men and the women who work to push these projects through are supported through good living wages,” Breed said. “I know that’s what you all represent.” 

Oberman, meanwhile, discussed the STB’s efforts to investigate the decline of freight rail service in the United States. Pointing to the reckless workforce slashing that has helped spur current freight rail disruptions, Oberman noted that much of the railroads’ difficulties hiring the workers needed to keep America’s supply chain running resulted from current working conditions – no business, he added, could function on the back of a nearly 30% workforce cut.  

“It’s quite clear that the main force driving how the railroads are being managed these days are the pressures of stockholders,” he said.   

Following Oberman’s speech, General President Sellers closed the joint session – but the day’s work had only begun, as sheet metal and Transportation Division leaders separated for industry-specific breakout sessions. Read more here.

STB Chair Marty Oberman

In the SMART Leadership Conference general sheet metal session, General President Sellers delivered an extensive state of the industry for local union leaders, underscoring the fact that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen the union sheet metal industry – if SMART takes advantage.  

From legislation to manufacturing developments, Sellers observed, an enormous number of projects are incoming; projects that require sheet metal workers. There is a renewed emphasis on indoor air quality and ventilation verification, from government buildings and schools and beyond. The newly passed Chips and Science Act will bring semiconductor manufacturing – a sector SMART members are uniquely qualified for – back to the United States. There are huge mega projects in the burgeoning electric vehicle and battery manufacturing/storage field.  

“We need to make sure that across the U.S. and Canada, we are capturing that work,” Sellers said. “Because if we don’t, if we don’t organize more than we ever could imagine, than that’s going to hurt.” 

SMART can only acquire that work, he explained, if our union – at the International and local level – greatly expands its ability to grow union membership and market share. That can only be done through innovative organizing, recruiting and retention, with a specific focus on diversity, equity and inclusion: making sure our union is welcoming to all. Sellers pointed out that expanding our membership will require new initiatives, from the BE4ALL effort to a move away from exclusive word-of-mouth recruitment.  

“If we keep the same [recruitment] patterns, we’re going to lose. … If we keep doing things the same way, frankly, I think generations will suffer,” he said. Adding that every local needs to ensure women, people of color and LGBTQ+ workers are welcome, he declared: “It doesn’t matter what you want to be called – she/her, he/him, great. We’ve got to represent everyone.” 

That emphasis on innovation extends to organizing. General President Sellers explained that the SMART organizing department has worked to constantly develop new techniques, learning from fellow unions – including non-building trades unions like UNITE HERE – as it seeks to build capacity and endurance. And the time to organize like never before, he repeated, is now. We need to strike while the iron is hot; while we have allies in Congress and in the presidency.  

In conclusion, General President Sellers referred to a familiar maxim: that many leaders run for union office to leave the local better than how they found it. This is the time to commit to that cause whole-heartedly. 

“Everything I have in my life is from the union sheet metal industry, and it deserves our best effort,” he said. “Through our unity, through our solidarity, through our sweat equity and our hard work, we will grow this union. And maybe, just maybe, we will be able to say we left it better than when we found it.” 

GP Sellers, SMACNA CEO Aaron Hilger, GST Powell

Following the general president’s remarks, sheet metal members heard from Aaron Hilger, CEO of SMACNA, who echoed many of Sellers’ comments from the contractors’ perspective, as well as Helmets to Hardhats Northwest Regional Manager Nick Weathers.  

“BE4All is probably the most important thing that we are doing together [with SMART right now,” Hilger explained. “We are never going to build the best workforce unless we make our workplaces welcoming.” 

Finally, after the joint session, industry-specific sessions and lunch, attendees separated to attend further breakouts, with topics including Job Actions, BE4All, a GP & GST town hall, Shaping Our Future, Implementing Technology, Mental Health, Arbitration and many more. (Breakout sessions are held each day of the conference.)  

Throughout the day, whether in the joint session or in breakouts, every attendee devoted themselves to the work that will build our union’s strength for generations: to Growth Through Unity. That work will continue for the rest of the conference.