SMART members from across the United States and Canada gathered in Washington, DC on April 25th and 26th for the 2023 North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) Legislative Conference. Throughout the week, workers and elected union leaders came together to push for legislation that prioritizes workers, as well as hear from elected officials, industry stakeholders and others.

The April 25th plenary session began with a keynote address from NABTU President Sean McGarvey, who introduced and emphasized the 2023 conference theme: “Empowering the Infrastructure Generation.”

Unprecedented investment – spurred by pro-worker federal legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and more – is creating tens of thousands of jobs and sparking the renewal of America’s infrastructure. This presents opportunity for the workers of today and tomorrow, McGarvey said, and it’s vital that unions push for legislation like the National Apprenticeship Act to ensure we can train the workforce to meet demand and bring workers of all backgrounds – rural, urban, women, people of color, the formerly incarcerated, veterans and more – into unions like SMART.

“Our model makes sure workers aren’t just trained for a project, but equipped with the highest skillsets for a long and meaningful career,” McGarvey explained. “This is our time to make sure we are building the opportunity pipeline to maximize private investment with public dollars and reach communities large and small.”

McGarvey was followed by various pro-worker officials, including former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin. Walsh discussed his time working with the Biden administration and the importance of making our voices heard in the halls of power – and the need to spread the word about how pro-labor elected officials are benefiting working families.

Former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh speaks at the 2023 NABTU Legislative Conference
Former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh speaks at the 2023 NABTU Legislative Conference

“Who you vote for has consequences,” Walsh said. “This is how we restore and expand access to the middle class in this country: through good, union jobs.”

Following Walsh, NABTU Legislative Conference attendees were joined by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, who has overseen a transformative pro-worker shift in the Prairie State – including the passage of the Workers’ Rights Amendment, project labor agreements on more than 1,000 construction projects, a $50 million Illinois Works pre-apprenticeship program and the passage of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, a pro-worker clean energy law that covers climate infrastructure projects with project labor agreements.

“Workers’ rights are gaining strength,” Pritzker declared. “Supporting workers’ rights is about investing in Illinois’ most precious resource, our nation’s most precious resource: our people.”

Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin has been a steadfast advocate for the union apprenticeship model, recognizing the potential unions have to lift workers of all backgrounds into the middle class. She explained the continued significance of union apprenticeships as policy and technology shift the way the world works, and declared to conference attendees her intent to continue the fight to reauthorize the National Apprenticeship Act.

“There’s one tried and true method that has lasted and stood the test of time, and that’s apprenticeships,” Baldwin said.

The day concluded with a fiery address from President Joe Biden, who took the stage hours after announcing his run for reelection. Throughout his speech, Biden focused on the steps taken by his administration to create an American economy that grows from the bottom up and the middle out – and emphasized that “we need to finish the job.”

“I learned a long time ago: There’s labor, and then there’s UNION labor,” he declared.

Biden explained how his administration’s pro-worker agenda has led to the passage of laws including the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Together these laws helped protect multiemployer pension plans; invested heavily in HVAC, energy efficiency, production, transit, rail infrastructure and other SMART sectors; created more than 800,000 manufacturing jobs; capped insulin copays at $35 per month for those covered by Medicare; and much more. The president also referred to his executive order requiring project labor agreements on federal projects that cost more than $35 million – a policy that amounts to an investment in union labor.

“I’ve said it many times: Wall Street didn’t build America. The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class,” Biden said. 

“For decades, trickle-down economics hollowed out the middle class. America rewarded wealth, not work. … As jobs were lost, something else was lost as well: a sense of pride, a notion of who you are, a sense of self-worth, earning your way,” he added. “My economic plan is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America, and that’s what we’re doing: rebuilding America.”

The April 26th plenary saw remarks from a range of bipartisan speakers, including Rep. Nikki Budzinski, Republican Congressmen Don Bacon and Brian Fitzpatrick, Senator Raphael Warnock, Senate Leader Chuck Schumer and others. Once again, the focus was firmly on the future – and how unions like SMART need to ensure we meet the workforce demands of this moment for generations to come. From making sure people of all backgrounds have pathways into union apprenticeships, to passing legislation that helps fund ever-evolving apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, now is the time to secure our future.

“Thank you for building the strongest and most robust country in the world,” Bacon said during his speech. “You deserve fair wages for a hard day’s work, pensions when you retire and safety at work.”

“You are at the center of America,” Warnock added during his remarks. “We need to hear your voices and countless efforts you’ve made to build this country. As you continue beating that drum, I will keep looking for every opportunity I can to stand up and protect our working people.”

Following the speaking agenda, SMART members joined representatives from the rest of the building trades on Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation that benefits our members.

“At the NABTU Legislative Conference, I had a first-hand view of the way that conditions for the working class have changed under the Biden administration and a Congress filled with pro-worker candidates,” SMART General President Joseph Sellers said. “We will continue to push for pro-labor policies that put our members to work and lift working families up.”

Local 49 Business Manager Isaiah Zemke (right) with President Biden.

SM Local 49 (Albuquerque, N.M.) Business Manager/Financial Secretary-Treasurer Isaiah Zemke took part in a “Communities in Action: Building a Better New Mexico” meeting at the White House on October 7, 2022. The discussion, part of the Biden administration’s “Building a Better America” series, included an overview with leaders from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, followed by state-specific sessions.

“They had leaders from each state join – from unions, nonprofits, tribal governments and elected politicians – for a group briefing, followed by individual state roundtables to share stories and discuss amplifying them across our communities and states,” Zemke said, noting that he conducted a survey of Local 49 members prior to the meeting in order to convey members’ thoughts to the administration. “I discussed indoor air quality and how we are partnering with school boards, the state of New Mexico and municipalities [to perform that work.]”

In the group meeting, Zemke and other attendees met with Julie Chavez Rodriguez, senior advisor to President Biden; Steve Rochetti, legislative coordinator; Al Zaidi, White House national climate advisor; Jewel Bronaugh, deputy secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture; Susan Rice, director of domestic policy; and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Along with conveying members’ messages to the administration, Zemke participated in a discussion on how recent legislation will impact working families in the region.

“It sounds like the plan is to have all 50 states choose leaders to attend similar action plans,” Zemke added.

Watch Zemke discuss his visit to the White House in episode two of SMART News.

In the New Mexico roundtable, Zemke brought up the amount of work that Indoor Air Quality policies and legislation like the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will create for SM Local 49 members, including an Intel plant in Rio Rancho, N.M. He also pointed out the need for high schools to receive funding for CTE programs, ensuring that SMART and other building trades have the workforce pipeline that will be needed to complete the infrastructure work of the future.

Ultimately, the discussion once again proved SMART’s new level of access with the current administration – and the importance of taking advantage in order to strengthen our union.

The White House, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The outlook for union labor and working families in America has improved drastically in the last 21 months. 

From 2016–2020, workers fought against an onslaught of anti-labor policies, executive orders, personnel appointments and more:

Anti-worker government actions, 2016–2020

1. The previous administration and Congress refused to include union pension protection in COVID-19 relief bills.

2. The previous president attempted to devalue SMART/union apprenticeships through expanded management-devised Industry- Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs).

3. The previous president’s FRA administrator refused to implement two-person crew rules and attempted to override state laws with an imposed one-person crew standard.

4. Anti-worker figures were appointed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), including Peter Robb — a management-side labor lawyer — as general counsel.

5. The former NLRB made it more difficult for workers to picket a subcontractor.

6. The former NLRB held that employers can legally monitor or search employees’ personal vehicles on company premises.

7. The former NLRB issued a decision making it easier for employers to restrict employees’ rights to talk to their coworkers about their union during work time, including asking a coworker to join the union, asking a coworker to vote to strike or asking a coworker to vote to ratify a contract.

A protest against right-to-work in Michigan

8. The former NLRB proposed a rule questioning whether building trades union agreements properly recognize the union as majority representative — even when the agreements contain language that recognizes the union as majority representative. This proposed rule would make it easier for contractors to walk away from the contract after it expires without attempting to negotiate a new agreement.

9. The previous president signed an executive order that threatened funding for Social Security.

10. The previous president’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) responded to the pandemic with temporary guidance that removed most employer responsibility to investigate or record workplace-related coronavirus cases in non-healthcare workplaces — including for essential sheet metal, rail and bus workers.

11. The previous president’s signature law, the Tax Cut and Jobs Acts (TCJA), encouraged offshoring of both paper profits and real production of U.S. multinational companies – hurting workers.

12. The previous president recommended vetoing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act if it reached his desk.

13. The previous president proposed a 2020 budget that would have cut Department of Labor (DOL) funding and eliminated the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a public-private partnership that helps small- and medium-sized manufacturers (and their workers) compete.

14. The previous administration encouraged firms to misclassify employees as independent contractors, lowering workplace standards and putting union jobs in jeopardy.

15. The previous administration rescinded a rule that required large employers or employers of workers in dangerous occupations to submit detailed logs of workplace injuries and illnesses for OSHA to publish online — making it harder to regulate and prevent further injuries.

16. By revoking an earlier rule, the previous administration made it easier for contractors who violate basic labor and employment laws to be awarded contracts paid for by taxpayer dollars.

17. The former NLRB gave employers more power to prevent organizers and off-duty employees from talking with employees at the workplace, during nonwork time, about forming a union.

18. The previous president’s DOL proposed a rule that would make it easier for employers to use the “fluctuating workweek” method, which better allows companies to avoid paying their workers overtime.

19. The previous administration rolled back child labor laws that regulated teenage use of operator-driven power lifts without supervision.

20. The previous administration proposed a paid parental-only leave plan that would force workers to cut into their Social Security benefits to fund their paid parental leave.

21. The previous administration announced a program that allowed employers who violate wage and hour laws to avoid paying penalties by volunteering to investigate themselves.

22. The previous administration weakened workplace safety protections for offshore drilling workers by eliminating a requirement for third-party inspections of safety measures and equipment, making key safeguards optional and allowing for industry self-policing.

23. The previous administration eliminated workers’ ability to choose who to form a union with, enhancing employers’ ability to manipulate bargaining units by adding in workers they feel would oppose the union.

24. The previous administration and Congress constantly attempted to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, which helps provide better healthcare for families of SMART members.

25. The previous administration delayed and weakened a mine inspection rule, allowing employers to send miners in before inspections are finished and letting operators not record hazardous conditions if they correct them “promptly.”

26. The previous president said he “loved right-to-work,” and his Justice Department successfully argued to make it the standard policy for government employees.

In the 2020 election, working people made their voice heard at the ballot box — and since then, the outlook for SMART members has changed for the better, as your union has constantly pushed the current administration to act on behalf of workers.

Pro-worker government actions, January 2021–Present

1. The current Congress and president passed the American Rescue Plan into law, which jumpstarted the U.S. economy, provided billions of dollars in union pension relief, invested billions into reopening schools and indoor air quality, and allocated $100 million to OSHA for worker safety.

2. The current Congress and president passed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, which will help cut healthcare prices for working families, fight climate change and hold the one percent accountable to pay their fair share in taxes. The IRA invests heavily in green energy infrastructure, with strong labor standards ensuring that SMART sheet metal workers will be in demand for this work.

3. The current Congress and president passed the CHIPS and Science Act, which invests in the U.S. semiconductor industry and American-made manufacturing. SMART sheet metal workers are uniquely qualified for the good, union jobs (constructing and maintaining semiconductor facilities) this legislation will create.

4. The current president and Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will rebuild our country’s crumbling infrastructure. Along with huge investments in traditional infrastructure like our nation’s railroad and public transportation systems, the law focuses on the industries in which SMART members work — like indoor air quality, energy efficiency and more — providing an enormous number of new jobs in the future.

5. The current House of Representatives passed the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021, which invests in registered apprenticeships while cutting federal funding for anti-union IRAPs. If this bill passes the Senate, the current president will sign it into law.

6. The current president appointed Marty Walsh, a lifetime union member and former president of the Boston Building Trades, to lead the U.S. Department of Labor.

7. The current president appointed Amit Bose as FRA administrator. Bose has consistently welcomed SMART TD to the table and listened to our concerns and perspective on matters that would impact SMART members.

8. Bose’s FRA proposed long overdue federal two-person crew regulations, which would provide much-needed safety and job assurances to our members.

9. Within hours of taking office, the current president fired Peter Robb, the most anti-union general counsel in the NLRB’s history, and appointed a pro-worker NLRB, including Jennifer Abruzzo — formerly the Special Counsel for Strategic Initiatives at the Communications Workers of America — as general counsel.

10. NLRB General Counsel Abruzzo issued a memo urging the NLRB to outlaw anti-union captive audience meetings.

11. NLRB General Counsel Abruzzo has proposed requiring employers to recognize a union once a majority of workers sign pro-union cards, rather than forcing workers to seek recognition via NLRB election or other, more complicated methods.

12. NLRB General Counsel Abruzzo has declared that college athletes have the right to organize, as do immigrant workers in the United States.

13. In its first major decision, the NLRB found that employers violate federal labor law by barring workers from wearing pro-union buttons or other apparel, enshrining workers’ rights to wear pro-worker gear on the job.

14. The current president appointed Doug Parker — former staff attorney for the United Mine Workers of America and executive director of Worksafe, an organization that advocates for workers in the Bay Area — as director of OSHA, returning the agency to its pro-worker role.

15. The current president appointed Jessica Looman, formerly the executive director of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, to lead the DOL Wage and Hour Division.

16. The current president issued an executive order repealing the former administration’s IRAP initiative, putting to bed one of the most serious threats the union building trades have faced.

17. The current president approved the environmental impact statement for the Hudson Tunnel Project and restored nearly $1 billion for California High Speed Rail, all of which was blocked by the previous administration. These projects would provide more jobs for SMART members.

18. The FRA released a new fatigue rule that “requires certain railroads to develop and implement a Fatigue Risk Management Program as one component of the railroads’ larger railroad safety risk reduction programs.”

19. The current administration’s OSHA announced a National Emphasis Program (NEP) related to heat and workplace safety. The NEP will prioritize inspections on hot days, target high-risk industries (including construction) and develop a federal rule to protect workers from heat-related illnesses.

SMART sheet metal organizers talking to workers at a jobsite in San Antonio, TX.

20. For the first time in 40 years, the DOL announced a proposed rule updating and strengthening Davis- Bacon and Related Acts (DBRA) prevailing wage regulations.

21. The current White House launched the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge to encourage buildings to improve ventilation. The recommendations specifically noted that skilled, trained and certified workers (SMART members) should perform this work.

22. The current president signed an executive order strengthening Buy American provisions, requiring federal bodies to buy more American-made products and invest in domestic manufacturing.

23. The current president signed an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15/hour.

24. The current president signed an executive order that gives workers the federally protected ability to refuse dangerous work.

25. The current president signed an executive order establishing the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, which released 70 recommendations to promote worker organizing and collective bargaining.

26. The current president signed an executive order requiring project labor agreements on large federal projects (costing $35 million or more).

27. The current administration announced over $386 million in consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant program funds to 46 projects in 32 states and the District of Columbia — an investment in rail workers’ safety.

28. In August 2022, the White House launched an initiative to promote better air in buildings, linking to the SMART website for guidance from the experts in this field — a tacit endorsement of SMART workers as the experts qualified to perform indoor air quality work.

29. The current president has openly sided with workers seeking to unionize at Amazon, sought the input of SMART and other unions in relation to construction, transportation and other impactful policy areas, and signed executive orders repealing anti-union rules of the previous administration.

30. The current president initiated student loan debt relief for working families, removing a key barrier for workers and their children as they seek to enter the middle class.

31. Current president and Congress passed and signed the PACT Act, to support veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the first Gulf War, the Vietnam War and a host of smaller deployments across the globe in between those campaigns who suffered from exposure to chemicals and other toxins.

The White House released a back-to-school fact sheet ahead of the new school year, highlighting SMART, SMACNA and NEMI’s collaboration with the White House on improving ventilation in schools. This fact sheet was circulated to school districts across the country and notes that SMART, SMACNA and NEMI are the experts that schools should use for indoor air quality, HVAC, ventilation and energy efficiency improvements and upgrades.

In conjunction, NEMI launched a new website that can facilitate connecting buildings that want to make ventilation and energy efficiency improvements to skilled, trained and certified workers and contractors — SMART and SMACNA members. Ideally this will be a useful resource for schools and other buildings as they try to take advantage of federal funding available for these efforts. If a building owner fills out a form on the NEMI website and requests assistance, they will receive a response within 48 hours to help them identify steps they can take to improve ventilation in their buildings.

SMART hopes these resources will help building owners and/or state and local elected officials access billions of dollars in federal funding approved by the Biden administration to improve ventilation and energy efficiency of buildings.

Two years of pro-worker policy have led to a wealth of opportunity for SMART sheet metal workers, now and into the future. Across the country, companies are once again investing in American manufacturing: building and maintaining facilities for electric vehicle batteries, data centers, semiconductor production and more — all of which require the expertise of SMART members.

I just appreciate SMART leadership and the Biden administration doing what needed to be done to get the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed, because we really needed this in all of our communities to build back the working class.”

SMART Local 83 members have worked for years on a GlobalFoundries chip plant in Malta, N.Y. Now, thanks to the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, GlobalFoundries is building an entire new building to expand its existing plant — a development Local 83 Business Manager Frank Maguire said will keep members “very busy for the next five to 10 years.” In addition, Local 83 members will help build the first wind turbine facility in the U.S., located in the Port of Albany.

“We have a very bright outlook for sheet metal workers in the Albany, New York area,” Maguire added.

SMART members in the Southwest Gulf Coast region can also look forward to a bounty of new work in the coming years, including a Meta data center ($30 billion of work); a Samsung project ($207 billion of work); a Texas Instruments semiconductor project in Sherman, Texas ($30 billion of work); and the next phase of a Tesla plant.

“This is the most work for our members in 20–25 years, and it’s creating good-paying, union construction jobs,” said SMART Southwest Gulf Coast Regional President Bill Kenyon. “I just appreciate SMART leadership and the Biden administration doing what needed to be done to get the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed, because we really needed this in all of our communities to build back the working class.”

The surge in megaprojects extends beyond the United States’ borders. In Canada, a $4.9 billion battery plant in Windsor, Ontario, will require 10 million pounds of galvanized duct to be manufactured in Toronto. That duct will then be installed by SM Local 235 members in Windsor.

“We’re hoping to get all the sheet metal work on the whole project, plus all the roofing,” said Michael Mahon, business manager/financial secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Sheet Metal Workers and Roofers in Windsor. “It’ll employ anywhere from 300–500 sheet metal workers and roofers.”

And in the Kansas City, Mo. area, SMART Local 2 workers will be called to work on two large data centers in the near future: a two-million-square-foot Meta data center and a $4.9 billion Panasonic battery factory in Kansas. That’s in addition to a biomedical facility in Manhattan, Kansas, to be constructed in conjunction with the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) that Local 2 members have worked on for the last five years. All told, these projects will bring an unprecedented number of jobs to area SMART members.

“We think [the Panasonic project] is going to be one of the largest projects that’s ever been done in Local 2’s jurisdiction,” explained Local 2 Business Manager Greg Chastain.

These megaprojects exemplify the historic progress that SMART has made in the last two years — and we will continue to organize to build our strength as we move into the future.

SMART Local 18 (Wisconsin) members hit the pavement at Milwaukee Laborfest 2022, where they marched with fellow workers, gathered with local and federal leaders and listened to President Joe Biden’s Labor Day address.

“Awesome day!” Local 18 shared on Facebook. “Had many speakers, including the most union-friendly president ever, speak in front of thousands at Milwaukee Labor Fest.”

Today the United States Department of Labor (DOL) announced a final rule to rescind the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP), and will instead direct the department’s resources toward registered apprenticeships. The DOL issued this final rule after reviewing the IRAP as required by Executive Order 14016, in which President Biden directed federal agencies to consider rescinding “any orders, rules, regulations, guidelines, or policies” implemented by the previous president’s Executive Order 13801, which promoted IRAPs.

SMART issued the following statement in response:

“We commend the Department of Labor for following through on President Biden’s executive order and recognizing the IRAP initiative for what it was: a bad faith attempt by anti-union contractors and politicians to undermine high-quality union apprenticeship programs and replace them with a watered-down system of certifications. Our registered apprenticeships offer expert training, stellar worker protections and better pay and benefits for workers across the country – no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, creed or place of origin. By rescinding IRAPs and investing instead in registered apprenticeship programs, the Department of Labor has ruled in favor of workers and their ability to find good, union jobs and reliable pathways to the middle class.”   

The Final Rule was published in the Federal Register on September 26, 2022 and will go into effect on November 25, 2022. Beginning on the effective date, DOL will no longer recognize Standards Recognition Entities (SREs) or IRAPs.

Today, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, officially codifying this groundbreaking piece of legislation into law. In response, SMART issued the following statement.

“By signing the Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden has once again acted on his campaign promise to be a president for working Americans. Once implemented, the Inflation Reduction Act will help alleviate rising prices for working families by cutting the cost of healthcare, lowering utility bills and making massive investments in green energy and American manufacturing – all with strong labor standards that will help create good, union jobs. Unlike the past administration, this legislation will see absolutely no tax increases for small businesses and families that makes less than $400,000 a year – instead, corporations will finally be held accountable and pay their fair share. And most importantly for our members, SMART workers will be called upon to take on the green energy jobs that this bill creates. We commend President Biden for signing this bill, and we look forward to meeting its demands.”

Today, the Biden Administration released a fact sheet intended to help schools, educators, families and children safely prepare to return to school this fall. As part of its efforts to help local education administrators ensure schools are ready to reopen, the White House noted its collaboration with SMART, SMACNA and NEMI – as experts in indoor air quality, HVAC, ventilation and energy efficiency – and linked to SMART’s “Better Air in Buildings” web page. In response, SMART issued the following statement:

“We welcome the Biden Administration’s continued willingness to collaborate with organized labor, and we commend the White House’s Back to School 2022 fact sheet: intended to give every school the tools to prevent COVID-19 spread and stay safely open throughout the year. SMART appreciates the White House’s partnership as we work to keep teachers, students and families safe through the upcoming school year, and our members across the country are ready, willing and able to perform the work needed to keep schools open safely. Find more information from SMART and from NEMI.”

Today, the United States House of Representatives passed the Inflation Reduction Act, sending the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law. In response, SMART issued the following statement.

“SMART applauds the work of the United States House and Senate for pushing this vital piece of legislation across the line for working families across our country. The Inflation Reduction Act will combat rising prices, cut the cost of healthcare for working Americans and invest billions of dollars into clean energy facilities and making homes and commercial buildings energy efficient. Importantly, the strong labor standards attached to the tax credits for production, energy efficiency and investment will help create good, union jobs – and SMART members are the workers with the skills and expertise to take on those jobs, from retrofitting schools to building green energy facilities. Our members are ready to meet the demands of this bill and will play a crucial role in solving the climate crisis.”