Staff Sgt. Antonette Ventura’s path to becoming a sheet metal journeyperson took an unexpected detour when she was deployed to Saudi Arabia in late 2020, during the middle of her apprenticeship. Thanks to the support she found at the SMART Local 88 training center in Las Vegas, however, her confidence in finishing the program never wavered.

Ventura, who grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, is the first member of her family to venture into the unionized trades. She moved to Las Vegas to seek her future among the opportunities in the growing city, then found Local 88 during her job search. When she got the approval letter to come and test, she immediately went in and performed well on the exam, as well as the interview. The first two years of her apprenticeship went smoothly — and she took to the work straight away, impressing her instructors as well as Ed Abraham, Local 88’s training director.

“She’s very hard-working, very knowledgeable and willing to learn,” Abraham said. “I am hopeful that she would be willing to be an instructor in the near future.”

That all had to be put on hold when she was called up as a reservist and found herself facing almost a year in the Middle East. Ventura joined the Air National Guard in 2007 and has served for the past 14 years, based out of March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, California. For many in the National Reserves, a long deployment can mean the total uprooting of one’s life: cars are sold, leases terminated and jobs or schooling are put on hold indefinitely.

“There really wasn’t an end date because things can happen. For security purposes, you just don’t know — they don’t want people posting dates on social media and such,” Ventura said. “I was worried about not being able to finish my apprenticeship on time because I didn’t know how the situation was going to be handled.”

Following a conversation with Abraham, Ventura said she had real peace of mind. She was assured that her place was secure, and that the union would work with her as she served overseas and help smooth the transition when she returned. The contractor she had been working with in Las Vegas, Kamran Metalworks, was likewise accommodating. 

From November 2020 through September 2021, she was deployed to Riyadh Air Base in the capital of Saudi Arabia, helping support Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in her capacity as an HVAC-refrigeration technician. With the pandemic in full swing and vaccinations becoming available during that time, her work was vital in keeping COVID-19 vaccines at the ultra-cold temperatures required for early doses. Her duties also included maintaining boilers and air conditioning systems throughout the base and working with contingency equipment.

Abraham — or “Schoolhouse Ed,” as Ventura calls him — helped her navigate the regulations on how activated members of the National Guard or Reserves are handled within the union. Her membership was temporarily changed to a special limited membership, and dues were paid by the union during deployment. Abraham also made sure to reach out on a monthly basis while Ventura was deployed to check up on her.

“That meant a lot,” she recalled. “It made me feel very connected.”

Ventura said there were conversations among the many personnel on the base about jobs and future work, and during these talks she could not help but sing the praises of SMART and Local 88. “One of the guys . . . after hearing me talk about it, he started getting interested in trade work and researching it,” she said.

Now in her fourth year, Ventura looks forward to completing her sheet metal apprenticeship in July and hopes to work in either the service or architectural sides of the trade. Although she loves Las Vegas and the people she has met there, she knows a union education in sheet metal affords her the opportunity to go many places.

She also said she would encourage anyone — especially women — to jump into careers such as sheet metal.

“Don’t be afraid to try,” she said. “You won’t unlock your potential unless you take that first step. I’m so glad I did.”

Abraham agrees that women like Ventura make the trade stronger, and he was happy to help her get back up to speed so she can complete her apprenticeship as scheduled.

“She is doing amazing in the program,” he said. “Any company should be glad to have her on their team.”

Do you have dreams of starting your own service business? Or do you have an existing sheet metal business that you’d like to add a service department to? If so, the International Training Institute (ITI) Service Academy is for you.

The ITI launched its new Service Academy in April, aimed at supporting union sheet metal workers who want to become service contractors signatory to SMART, as well as existing signatory contractors looking to add a service arm to their business. The academy features a series of courses designed to teach SMART members the fundamentals of business ownership and help them decide whether or not to start a business.

Beginning with the ITI Business Development course, participants are introduced to the tools they need to plan for successful business ownership, including choosing a business name, hiring and retaining the right people, bidding accurately, keeping track of cash flow and more. The Business Development course also gives participants a jump-start on writing a comprehensive business plan and examines strategies for marketing and financing a new business in today’s construction and service markets.

Once they have completed Business Development, participants can choose from various courses in the Service Academy’s pathway, addressing the needs of members at all stages in their careers.

For example, the Basic Service Technician Training course is designed for those who have gained knowledge and insight into the Business Development and Service Manager courses but need more hands-on experience working with the tools of the trade. Another course, the Service Specialty Manager Training, is for those who want to open a dedicated service department at an existing signatory contractor. Participants learn the ins and outs of dispatch, cost of overhead, maintenance contracts, marketing and more.

The Service Academy provides the most robust and well-rounded approach to the service side of the industry and includes more than just HVACR. With multiple course selections available, the academy is centered on participants’ needs and will address a broader perspective of service-based scopes of work, including – but not limited to – HVAC Fire Life Safety, TAB, BIM and Ventilation Verification for Indoor Air Quality. Most of the courses are offered either entirely online or in a hybrid learning environment, and independent study expectations are kept manageable for participants who are still working full time in the field.

Visit the Service Academy website to learn more!

During the first week of May, the SMART Department of Education held an in-person basic organizing training session in Portland, Oregon — part of the vital work the department performs in order to keep our union strong and geared towards growth. 

Participants from across the region immersed themselves in study and conducted role play exercises to prepare for circumstantial and situational topics that are important for building a basic organizing foundation for local unions. 

Topics included, but were not limited to:

  1. Organizing under the National Labor Relations Act in both construction and production settings;
  2. Basic “street law” rules for in-field activity;
  3. Initiating and perpetuating value-based representation communications with nonunion workers;
  4. Initiating and perpetuating value-based, top-down conversations with employers;
  5. Investigating and outlining basic organizing strategies; and more.

Participants were also given a presentation on the SMART indoor air quality (IAQ) initiative. Instructors broke down the complexities of the initiative’s sequences, answered questions and discussed with participants how the IAQ initiative could be utilized as a tool for organizing, growing market share and increasing density within their local unions. 

In addition to in-person sessions, participants had the opportunity to engage in the training via remote conferencing with both SMART Director of Organizing Darrell Roberts and SMART Director of National Campaigns James White, both of whom gave presentations about their departments and answered questions.

On Friday, May 6, 105 members of SMART Local 565 working at Trachte Building Systems in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin voted to strike – taking a collective stand for their rights to a fair contract that gives them well-earned time to spend with their families and loved ones.

“There’s been lots of a mandatory overtime put on the workers through the pandemic, [and] the company is looking for additional mandatory overtime language [in the next contract],” Local 565 Business Manager Jesse Buell said in an interview with Labor Radio in Madison. “The people just want more family time.”

Sheet metal workers at Trachte perform essential labor that has proved especially vital in recent years, producing training centers for fire fighters and first responders, as well as storage units that are used across the country. Unfortunately, Buell explained to Labor Radio, the hard work of the members has not been rewarded by management. Instead, Trachte has maneuvered to keep Local 565 members working as much as possible – at the expense of time spent with their kids, families and neighbors.

“There was a moment where Trachte worked these guys for seven days a week for about nine weeks in a row very strategically, where they didn’t mandate the same person for the 15 days, but they would go back and forth from machines,” he said.

Following what Buell called a “strong” strike vote, Local 565 members have taken to the street – despite attempted union-busting from Trachte, including a letter encouraging workers to quit the union. According to Buell, the company’s hostile tactics have only strengthened the resolve of the workers.

“It’s actually motivated the members to stick together, and it’s really gained solidarity over there,” he said.

That solidarity has extended to the rest of the Wisconsin labor movement. On Monday, May 9, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO released a statement in support of striking SMART members.

“The Wisconsin labor movement proudly stands in solidarity with our sisters and brothers of SMART Local 565 on strike at Trachte Building Systems in Sun Prairie,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. “We send solidarity and strength to SMART members as they hold the line for a fair and just contract that allows workers to spend time with their family.”

SMART commends the bravery of our Local 565 brothers and sisters on strike in Wisconsin, and every member of our union stands with them in unwavering solidarity as they continue to fight for their rights.

Over the next two episodes of Talking SMART – the official podcast of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation workers – hosts Paul Pimentel and Ben Nagy talk with SMART members who have successfully run for local or state public office, discussing their sheet metal and transportation careers, what motivated them to run for elected office, specific steps they took to build and run successful campaigns and key issues they focused on once in office.

The featured guest for episode 20: Joe de la Cruz, a 25-year sheet metal worker with SMART Local 40 and vice president of Hillery Company, a signatory metal fabricator located in Groton, Conn. Episode 20 is out now; look for episode 21 in the near future.

Since 2016, Brother de la Cruz has served as a state representative, proudly serving the communities of Groton and New London in the Connecticut General Assembly. But his career as an elected official started at a much more local level, when he ran for and won a seat on Groton’s Town Council and Representative Town Meeting years earlier.

“What I think inspires people to get involved is when they start actually participating, and you don’t have to be elected to do that,” de la Cruz told Talking SMART. “All the meetings are open – just go to your council meeting. And when you hear how other people think and how vastly different it is sometimes from your opinion, that’s when the fire can get lit.”

“I know [running for office is] hard and I know it’s tough to do because we’re sheet metal workers, and when we go home we’re dirty and tired, but if you want to have things go your way – and it doesn’t really matter what the issue is – you have to be sitting at the table.”

– Joe de la Cruz, Local 40 member and Conn. state rep

Throughout the podcast discussion, Brother de la Cruz underscored the importance of being engaged and involved with your local community if you want to have a say in what happens, whether it’s with local sports leagues – which is what initially inspired de la Cruz to run for office – or on multi-million-dollar decisions about Project Labor Agreements or transportation funding. If members aren’t involved, he warned, there’s a strong possibility that the elected officials making decisions with enormous ramifications for SMART members will be people who have no idea what blue-collar life is like for working families.

“I know [running for office is] hard and I know it’s tough to do because we’re sheet metal workers, and when we go home we’re dirty and tired, but if you want to have things go your way – and it doesn’t really matter what the issue is – you have to be sitting at the table,” he explained.

In 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, de la Cruz also kickstarted a national campaign to bring metal nose strips to thousands of volunteer face mask makers across the United States and Canada, at a time when masks were in critically short supply. Starting at Local 40, the effort quickly spread to SMART locals across North America, eventually resulting in over 17 million nose strips being produced and shipped to more than 27,000 people who requested them. For his leadership on this effort, Joe was honored in 2022 with the Joseph J. Nigro SMART Army Service Award.

Listen to episode 20 of Talking SMART – as well as all previous episodes – here.

SMART Army members across the United States held their annual event in honor of fallen service members by joining thousands across the country to lay wreaths at the final resting place of service members at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as at over 2,500 sites across the country. The event, through Wreaths Across America, pursues the objective of remembering the fallen, honoring their sacrifices and teaching future generations of Americans about those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom.

On Saturday, May 14, the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) will hold its traditional Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive – its 30th and the first in-person since 2019 (due to the pandemic, NALC conducted online donor drives the last two years). Participation is simple: On May 14, pitch in by leaving a bag of nonperishable food items near your mailbox before mail collection. Your NALC labor movement sibling will handle the rest, making sure your donation is delivered to local food banks in need.

As NALC President Fredric Rolando explains in the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive announcement video: “Much of life paused or changed during the pandemic, but one thing that remained was the growing need for food assistance across the nation. Today, over 45 million Americans, including 15 million children, experience food insecurity, and they rely on food donations.”

“Together,” he adds, “we can stamp out hunger in America.”

Learn more at nalc.org/food-drive.

In late March, SMART members joined union brothers and sisters from across the Oklahoma labor movement for a good cause. Together with the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA) and Major League Fishing (MLF) Fisheries Management Division (FMD), local union members teamed up at REDCREST – MLF’s Bass Pro Tour championship – to build 120 artificial fish habitats. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, MFL co-founder and Bass Fishing Hall of Fame inductee Gary Klein, FMD members and MossBack Fish Habitat deployed some of the structures into Lake Bixhoma shortly after to improve the quality of life for numerous fish species.

“Much of the natural fish habitat once found in many of our reservoirs has been buried by siltation or slowly degraded over time as it decomposes,” said Steven Bardin, a fisheries biologist with MLF-FMD. “This habitat loss must be addressed if we plan to continue to support healthy fish populations. That’s why a project like the Ferguson Habitat build and partnerships with Union Sportsmen’s Alliance, MossBack Fish Habitat, the KVD Foundation and Berkley Labs are so important to MLF Fisheries Management Division.”

Habitat restoration projects like the one at REDCREST target fisheries near MLF Bass Pro Tour stage locations and – using science-based methods, a community-driven approach and materials preferred by local agencies – help to reestablish natural areas of local communities. The event at REDREST saw 41 union volunteers representing the Oklahoma AFL-CIO, Transportation Workers Local 514, Sheet Metal Workers Local 270, Roofers Local 143, Electrical Workers Local 584 and National Letter Carriers Local 1358 donate 530 hours – a $28,090 value – to build the habitats using tools donated by Milwaukee Tool and materials provided by Ferguson and MossBack Fish.

“The Oklahoma AFL-CIO has partnered with the USA on multiple projects in Oklahoma, and the communities are always grateful for the work we do. During the expo, many attendees stopped by the booth to ask questions about the habitat builds and the work the USA does,” said Jimmy C. Curry, Oklahoma AFL-CIO president, who organized volunteers for the project. “I’ve personally done work with our unions and different charities for over 30 years, and the projects we have done with the USA have been my most memorable. Seeing the work the USA does has made me a Union Sportsman for life.”

MLF and the USA signed an agreement in July 2021 to pursue angler recruitment, retention and reactivation via each entity’s staff and respective pools of member volunteers in order to put together local and state fishing events, MLF fishing events and USA habitat conservation projects.  

“Through our Work Boots on the Ground conservation program, the USA reaches into local communities to create and improve access and opportunities in the outdoors,” said Forrest Parker, USA director of conservation and communications. “Combining the USA’s workforce of union volunteers with the resources and influence of Major League Fishing through projects like this propel both of our organization’s efforts to pass on the fishing heritage to a whole new level.”

In projects like the one at REDCREST, community engagement is a concrete aim – and that aim was certainly achieved in Oklahoma, in no small part because of the enthusiasm and skill set of union members who took part. “An added benefit of bringing together skilled union volunteers to complete a conservation project in the middle of an event attended by tens of thousands of bass fans, was the educational component,” said Sam Phipps, USA conservation programs manager. “There were hourly demonstrations and printed instructions available, so expo attendees can now build habitat on their own to benefit additional water bodies and fisheries.”

The SMART Army was out in full force in Dearborn Heights Michigan the week of November 1st, 2021.  Upon hearing of a need by some very worthy recipients, SMART Local 80 Detroit apprentices answered that call.

Jaime Wencel, a young unwed mother, died shortly after giving birth to her fifth child.  Amid those terrible circumstances, Jaime’s parents, Debbie and Tom Wencel, stepped in to raise her 5 children, Cara (13), Paige (10), Jenna (8), Cayden (6) and Nina (4).

Debbie and Tom, who is a retired Local 1401 Drywall Finisher, have spent much of their lives volunteering and giving back to their community.  Tom is a member of the Dearborn Heights City Council, and his daughter Jaime worked many hours for his campaign to help him get elected.  They live in a modest two bedroom home, and suddenly had a need to add on a second floor addition to provide Jaime’s children with the adequate space to grow.

Many local companies and individuals have stepped up to help the Wencel Family and the Charity now  simply known as “Jaime’s Kids”.  Building materials and labor have been donated from multiple local supply houses and contractors as well as over 100 volunteers that have donated their time and talents to starting the second floor addition project.

It was brought to the attention of the SMART Local 80’s Apprenticeship Training director, Matt ORourk, that there was a need to have the metal panel roof installed over the porches on both the front and the side of the house.  The material had been donated and was on-site, but the estimates for installation by a local contractor was steep. SMART Local 80 generously donated their time and skill to get the job done.  Led by Local 80 Training Center Instructor Sam Velez, a crew of apprentices showed up to volunteer to install the panels.

List of SMART members who attended:

Richard Davidson, Drake Wonifeil, Dan Hines, Jacob Ciner, Alex Bastien, Michael Lopez, Quinn Gattori, Travis Harper, Alan Dickson, Hunter Brotherton, Daniel Bleyaert, Joshua Gibbons, Sam Velez (Instructor), Bob Wenzell (Organizer 292), David Hartsuck (Organizer 80)

Virginia State Legislative Director Ronnie Hobbs reports that H.B. 440, the two-person freight crew bill that has passed the state House, is scheduled for a hearing Monday, February 17, at the state Capitol.
“We’re asking all of our Virginia members and their families to spend the day to get the word out,” Hobbs said. “Now is the time for us to show our state senators the importance of this public safety matter.”
The bill passed the House of Delegates by a 61-37 vote in January and there was a great show of support by SMART members and retirees. Hobbs would like to see that duplicated Monday.
Contact Hobbs at rhobbs1313@gmail.com for more details on how to show your support in the fight to keep two on the crew.