Note: This article was originally published by Eye On Sheet Metal, a resource for the unionized sheet metal industry.

John Espinos (second from right) received the Patriot Award in November.

John Espinos has mentored many apprentices in his time as training coordinator at SMART Local 27 in central and southern New Jersey, but receiving a Patriot Award for going above and beyond in his support of a servicemember took him by surprise.

“I was not expecting this at all,” Espinos said. “It actually brought a tear to my eye.”

The award pin and certificate were presented to Espinos by Ronni Enzman, Monmouth County chairperson for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), at a small ceremony at the training center on November 27.

Sgt. Mike Pruchnicki, currently in the second year of his apprenticeship, is the servicemember who nominated Espinos. He recalled all the extra time Espinos took with him to help get his Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits in place and, later, to make his deployment as smooth as possible.

“John helped me a lot since I came to Local 27 … he supported me each time I went away on orders or training, and ensured I still would have work when I returned,” Pruchnicki said. “He has been very supportive through everything, and when I found out about the Patriot Award, I couldn’t think of anyone else more deserving than John.”

The Patriot Award is one in a series of Department of Defense awards granted by the ESGR, and it reflects efforts made to support servicemembers through a wide range of measures including flexible schedules, time off prior to and after deployment, caring for families and granting leaves of absence when needed. Servicemembers can nominate a supervisor they feel has made a substantial difference for them.

“This is yet another way to show the sheet metal industry is employing veterans, and veterans appreciate the support they are given,” said Josh Moore, International Training Institute field representative and SMART Heroes specialist. “This young man was worried about his apprenticeship, and he was glad John was there to support him. I think it’s great that the local is being recognized. They’re the ones that support the apprentices as they make their transition into journey work.”

Moore and Espinos believe this is the first time a training coordinator for a SMART local has received a Patriot Award. The ESGR awards program is progressive, with the Patriot Award serving as a first step toward further recognition. In order to qualify for consideration for higher honors, such as the Above and Beyond Award or the program’s highest recognition, the Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, an employer must first have at least one supervisor recognized with a Patriot Award.

Espinos is no stranger to recognition as a mentor — or lapel pins of appreciation. He’s been involved in Boy Scouts of America as a scoutmaster for many years, and over time he accumulated quite a few mentor pins from Eagle Scouts who wished to honor those who had helped them on their journey. It got to the point, he said, that at Boy Scouts events he would jokingly walk lop-sided and say all the pins were weighing him down. Memories of those events came back to him as he received the Patriot Award.

“It reminded me of something my dad said before he passed,” recalled Espinos. “He told me, ‘You were a rough kid growing up, always in trouble, but I knew you were here to make an impact on other people’s lives.’”

The difference Espinos made for Pruchnicki was evident when Espinos received his award, but this is far from the first or last time a training coordinator will go to bat for an active-duty guard or reserve member. They step in to coordinate solutions when a contractor must lose a valued apprentice due to deployment, then make sure that servicemember’s job is safe and waiting for them when they return. Training coordinators at sheet metal locals also often help apprentices with VA matters and paperwork or online forms for the GI Bill, as well as making sure the apprentice gets hours covered to receive health care, pension and everything else that should be available to them.

Espinos said that there are quite a few hoops to jump through, but once you go through it the first time, it gets easier each time afterward. He also noted that apprentices at Local 27 are really in full-time classes for only around four weeks a year, each year of the five-year program.

“In that short amount of time, it felt good to make an impact on [Pruchnicki’s] life,” Espinos said.

SM Local 56 (Nova Scotia) roofer Alexis Lynk enjoys working with her hands. Even before she became a union roofer, she was no stranger to hands-on labor, serving customers and navigating hectic, fast-paced work situations in the service industry.

“I worked at McDonald’s for nine years,” Lynk said. “But I wasn’t making ends meet with the wages I had.”

The subpar pay led her to enroll in a trade apprenticeship through Women Unlimited, a program that introduces women to various trades via practical experience. Through that process, Lynk found her niche in roofing. And while the Women Unlimited program wasn’t her first encounter with the trades — her father was a tradesperson, and she dabbled in some trades work in high school — the mentorship and learning model cemented the union roofing industry as her new career path.

“When I come to work and I’m scared to do something, I have people to guide me,” Lynk explained. “They don’t just do it for me, they go through it with me step-by-step, so later I can do it on my own.”

Now, she is back at a McDonald’s — but this time as a roofer, working on top of the building rather than within it.

As the only female roofer on the jobsite, Lynk recalled feeling slightly nervous during her first days at work. She worried how people would perceive her skill set on the job. However, her nerves quickly abated as she found fellow brothers and sisters in the union roofing industry who supported her.

“A lot of the time, [even if] I don’t believe in myself, these people believe in me,” she said. Now, she is confident in her ability. The knowledge she learned through the apprenticeship program has given her skills to take on a variety of jobs, and as her confidence has grown, so has her feeling of belonging at the worksite. In five years, Lynk has no doubt she will be a Red Seal roofer. With her apprenticeship completed, the sky is truly the limit.

“When you say ‘yes’ to opportunities, pathways open and things are more accessible,” Lynk concluded. “I know it’s easy to say, ‘just jump in and do it.’ But if you put in yourself first, you’re going to go far.”

Local 359 member Philip M. Wingert received his 60-year service award in 2023. Pictured from left to right: Business Representatives Pat Montroy and Luke Kasper, Philip Wingert receiving his 60-year pin, Business Representative Tom McDermott and Local 359 Retirees President Melvin M. Palmer.

Pictured, left to right: Evan Brown, Jerry Durieux, James Chester and Kevin Tesch at the 2022 Local 33 Akron District Retiree Christmas Party. Chester received his 50-year service award during the party. Congratulations, brother!

SMART Northeast Regional Council President and General Vice President Robert Butler recently honored Local 17 (Boston, Mass.) member George Psaros for his 70 years of service to our union. Congratulations on this incredible achievement, Brother Psaros!

During a financial secretary-treasurers meeting at SMART International headquarters in Washington, DC, several SMART Rail, Mechanical and Engineering (RME) Department members received their 15-year service awards. Pictured, left to right: Erik Marro from Local 31 (Harmon, New York); Rob Ussery of Local 78 (Little Rock, Arkansas); SMART International Representative C. Joseph Fraley of Local 31; Rob Kaminskey from Local 149 (New York City); and Arnold Fernandes from Local 139 (Boston, Mass.).

SM Local 88 (Las Vegas, Nevada) won the first annual Southern Nevada Building Trades softball tournament. They forged a dominant run through a crowded field of 18 other teams, none of which were able to stand up to the hitting prowess and fielding only Local 88 could muster. Congratulations!

Members of SMART SM Local 206 joined fellow union workers from the San Diego Building Trades on September 26 to usher through a historic victory for workers in the area, with La Mesa, Calif., becoming the first city in San Diego County to pass a citywide project labor agreement (PLA).

The PLA, negotiated between the city of La Mesa and the San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council, was approved unanimously, and will ensure union pay, benefits and protections for all construction workers on city of La Mesa public works projects.

“Personal politics aside, most of our members know and understand that our local will only endorse and support labor-friendly candidates and legislation,” said Local 206 Business Manager Dave Gauthier. “When we support those that support livable wages and a full family benefit package, our members and our communities do better as a whole.”

“When we support those that support livable wages and a full family benefit package, our members and our communities do better as a whole.”

– SMART Local 206 Business Manager Dave Gauthier

Project labor agreements benefit workers, contractors, project owners and citizens alike by organizing complex construction projects, creating jobs for local community members, providing the necessary skilled trades workforce for complicated jobs. They also help bring projects in on time and under budget – ultimately saving taxpayer money. By providing union-protected wages and benefits for all workers, project labor agreements help lift area residents – including historically disadvantaged and underrepresented communities – into the middle class. They also benefit local unions, with many PLAs including union hiring hall requirements.

Local 206 members and other building trades workers showed up to the September 26 La Mesa City Council meeting to speak in favor of the La Mesa PLA – illustrating the difference it makes when SMART members get involved in the political process. Such activism will continue to be crucial as local unions work to take advantage of a union-friendly political climate and funding from federal legislation signed into law by President Biden. Additionally, Gauthier added, pushing for pro-labor legislation like PLAs helps demonstrate the union advantage to working people everywhere.  

“Explaining the benefits of local hire and project labor agreements is actually pretty easy when speaking to working-class people,” he said. “When you tell folks that these agreements benefit their neighbors who wake up early every morning and lace up their work boots, and when they understand that their tax dollars are then being redistributed in the local economy, you can really see the light come on in their eyes. They get it, and then they get what we in labor are all about.”