Skip to main content Skip to search

Posts by Gary Johnson

Bricklayers Compete for Excellence

Competition sparks excellence. The bricklayers of BAC 1 believe if it doesn’t spark excellence, it certainly does focus the mind. “If the specs call for brick to placed to a certain distance, the bricklayer has to be right on with their measurements,” explained John Slama, Masonry Coordinator at the BAC Training Center in New Hope. “If it doesn’t match what the contractor wants done, you won’t get paid.”

On a rainy day in late April, bricklayer apprentices tested their on-the-job knowledge in their annual skills competition. The bricklayer apprentices competed between classes (first, second and third year) and within the two different divisions, the brick division and the Pointer-Cleaner-Caulker (PCC).

Each apprentice is given a blueprint. In order to raise the bar of difficulty, placed inside the design is a color pattern. On the job there’s a lot of detail work, which they incorporate into the competition. Plus the contestants only get a few hours to complete the project. The judges are rigorous in measuring the specifics as well, and not just by a tape measure but by using a step gauge.

“Three or four years ago I did it,” said journeyman bricklayer Jesse Stonehouse who made it to the national competition. “You feel an immense amount of pressure. Pressure from our foremen and journeymen standing around judging what you do. The pressure to uphold the union standard that you are taught every single day and to do it in a time-cruched situation… it can become pretty intense.”

Keanan Carlson and Riley Strate were the top two finishers in the bricklayers division and move onto regionals in Chicago June 18. Greyson Cunningham and Joel Aaser will compete for BAC Local 1 in the PCC division a week later in Ohio.

Read more

Union Plumbers Volunteer Skills to Help Neighbors

On Saturday, March 26, union plumbers took time to provide free plumbing repairs and inspections to 25 senior, low-income and disabled homeowners in Minnesota as part of Water’s Off, a community service program that helps homeowners in need. The goal is not to just help others but to raise awareness about the importance of proper plumbing maintenance and repair, two things that help conserve water and save money on a homeowner’s utility bill.

Lots of water is lost through leaky faucets and toilets that don’t run efficiently. For example, according to the City of Saint Paul Regional Water Department, a bad flapper inside a toilet tank combined with a bad fill valve can run a homeowner an extra $307 a month. Got a bathtub that leaks? That’s another $75 a month.

“We do this for the community because we want to give back,” explained Dean Gale, Local 34 Business Manager whose local had 35 plumbers volunteer for the day. “We are fortunate to have the jobs we have and the skills we have. We are giving back to the people in our community who need our help.”

  Since the Water’s Off community service program started in 1991, union plumbers have donated more than 13,000 hours of skilled labor, with a value of $2,050,000.

Water’s Off is made possible by Saint Paul Plumbers Local 34 as well as two other unions (Minneapolis Plumbers Local 15 and Rochester Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 6) the Minnesota Mechanical Contractors Association, the Metro Plumbing Heating and Cooling Contractors and three Community Action Partnership agencies (Hennepin County, Ramsey and Washington Counties and Three Rivers) were involved as well.

“Giving back to our communities is one of our core union principles, so once we identified the problem, we knew we needed to help.” said David Ybarra, President of the Minnesota Pipe Trades Association, which represents more than 9,000 plumbers, pipefitters, and other skilled union tradesmen and women.



Read more

Women in Construction Week 2022

 Women in Construction Week 2022 (WIC Week) returns to the Twin Cities from March 6-12. And it returns with some in person events after being a virtual-only event last year. “Depending on the venue some will require a mask, but at least it’s in person,” said Janelle Miller, WIC Week Chair who works for Peterson Companies.

 WIC Week highlights women as a visible component of the construction industry and raises awareness about the opportunities available for women who are construction workers. Though women represent an enormous potential workforce, they are a significant minority in the union building trades. Women make up about 11% of the construction industry’s workforce. The construction industry is brimming with opportunities for women with the right skills and capabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the construction industry will grow six percent from 2020-30, adding about 400,000 new jobs.

 The week starts on Sunday, March 6, when participants will be able to get their virtual bingo card online. They can play bingo throughout the week for prizes to be awarded after the week is over. One in-person event designed to help women meet their unique apparel needs is Beyond the Pink which takes place on Tues., March 8, at the St. Paul Tool Library. Women will be treated to workwear product demos with the opportunity to swap gear as well. Workplace apparel manufacturers are making clothes designed to fit the female form better, says Miller. “I worked 12 years in the field as a Laborer. I know firsthand how we wear clothes is different from our male counterparts. These are things being addressed in our industry.”

 In total 12 events are scheduled this year. The 2022 WIC Week calendar of events is available here:

Read more

Local 10 Sheet Metal Workers’ Mid-Year Skills Competition

Local 10 sheet metal apprentices have been going through their version of mid-term exams. More accurately, it’s a contest between the different classes but it serves an important function – it’s a barometer for each apprentice to check where their skills levels are in the different disciplines that a qualified journey worker needs to know.

During one week in February there were three groups competing. These groups were split up by classes: first year Commercial, second year Industrial and those apprentices in the Architectural sheet metal class. 

Each class has different skills associated with common duties and applications in its area of focus. For example, the HVAC apprentices do a “duct run” they would perform in building a residential home. Ducts in a home are those silver-colored ducts near the ceiling that bring air from the air conditioning or furnace throughout a home to keep you cool in the summer or warm in the winter. They draw out the run, lay it out and then build it by bending and installing the metal.

The other classes get judged on the nuances of their specialties. The Industrial class gets tested on their welding abilities. The Architectural class designs and makes a rain cap for a chimney or a furnace exhaust. But what all three have in common is some knowledge in the use of computer assisted drawing (CAD). 

“This keeps everybody on their toes and judges where they are at,” says Cory Nelson, Metro Area Sheet Metal JATC apprenticeship coordinator. “The students enjoy the friendly competition. These guys love it.”



Read more

Local 49 Apprentice Training Becomes Alternative High School Elective Classes

Through a partnership with Destinations Career Academy at Minnesota Virtual Academy (MNVA), the Local 49 Operating Engineers union has successfully integrated their curriculum into high schools in Minnesota. This means students can take elective classes, fast-tracking their way into registered apprenticeship within the union. 

The program started in the fall semester of 2020. The organizers were told not to hold your breath. Maybe you’ll have a couple dozen students sign up. But surprisingly fifty-seven students signed up. A year later, for the fall of 2021, 148 kids from 73 school districts from 47 counties in Minnesota registered for the program. This spring the numbers increased again, 177 students from 76 school districts.

For the students, it’s a 3-for-1 win-win-win situation. The courses offered count as elective courses on a student’s high school transcript; articulated college credits with North Hennepin Community College; and credit hours towards the Registered Apprenticeship Program with Local 49 once they are signed on with a signatory contractor. Thanks in part to this program, some students that graduated last year are already three quarters of their way through their first year of registered apprenticeship.

One challenge the program needed to address is the budget impact for local school districts.  K12 funding follows the students in Minnesota and while these courses are less of an impact than Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) for schools, IUOE Local 49 felt strongly about being solid community partners and with the assistance of industry partners and the MN Legislature, they developed a pool of money to backfill any budgetary impacts to local school districts.  Schools are fully reimbursed for the cost of the courses for students that take and pass the courses.

 “We’ve seen kids who have not been interested in school find a career path,” explained Jenny Winkelaar, Local 49’s Director of Workforce and Community Development. “I love being able to do this for kids. We are giving them good information at an early stage in their lives, setting them up to make good career and life decisions.”




Read more

Inspiring By Any Measure

Cement mason, hockey coach, fitness competitor, single mom – those are all roles Kate Zelko has in her life. Sometimes all in the same day. When you consider she often commutes from her home in Sauk Rapids to jobs in the Metro area, one wonders how she does it in a 24 hour day.

A kinesiology major at Augsburg University, after college she decided she wanted to work outside and do something physical. She actually started in the trade by answering an ad on Craig’s List for a non-union company. “I had a son and needed to make money,” she said. While working non-union on a Ryan Companies job, she was approached about joining the union. She thought the pay and benefits were hard to beat.

Being a woman in a male dominated industry didn’t intimidate her. Rather it challenged her. “I challenged myself to hang with the boys,” she explained. “In the union the men have treated me absolutely great. They are just like my brothers. When I worked non-union, it wasn’t so hot.”

Brian Farmer, Apprenticeship Coordinator at Cement Masons Local 633, recognized her commitment to the trade and hired her as a teacher at the cement masons training center. He needed someone to represent the female side of the industry, someone who could be a guide to the ever-increasing role of women in the industry. Added Zelko, “It’s been exciting working with apprentices, particularly in the role of a female mentor. For single moms like me or just women going it alone, through me I hope they realize it’s not just a man’s job. They can do it too.”


Read more

Holiday Apprentice Training: Concrete Christmas 2021

At this time of year the cement masons and plasterers apprentices from Local 633 turn their indoor training center floor in New Brighton, Minn., into a winter wonderland. The theme of this year’s Concrete Christmas project was “Christmas at a Northern Lodge” which featured a dual fireplace with a 15-foot chimney. “Everything we are doing here has a real world application,” explained Brian Farmer, Apprenticeship Coordinator of Local 633 Journeyman and Apprentice JATC Training Center. “While it has an educational function, it does show the artistic nature of what can be done with concrete and plaster.” As is the case every year, the work is divided up amongst the first, second and third year apprentices, because each group has a particular skill level. Construction started Mon., Nov. 8 and finished on Mon., Dec. 6.

Often referred to as “the other four year degree,” apprentice worked-based training is an “earn while you learn” system offering students a chance to learn from the most skilled construction workers in the U.S. They start as apprentices and graduate as journey workers, a critical talent pipeline building future American infrastructure. 

Nowhere is the need for more apprentices and journey workers in the to load the pipeline more acute than in the cement masons trade. There are only 1,000 cement masons in Minnesota. “The demand is huge,” said Farmer. “Even during the pandemic in 2020, we had 1.4 million worker hours that year. That’s an incredible amount of work.”


Read more

Gallup: Labor Union Approval at Generational High

This Labor Day 2021 public approval of labor unions is at a generational high. A poll released by Gallup Sept. 2 shows 68% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest level since 1965. According to the poll, 17% of Americans live in a union household and 10% of Americans with incomes above $40,000 are union members. For those making under $40,000, union support rates at 72%. Union favorability is striking high amongst young Americans (ages 18-34) at 77%.

Through Labor Day members of the union building trades manned the AFL-CIO meet-and-greet and information exhibit at the corner of Dan Patch Avenue and Cooper Street at Minnesota State Fair, back after a COVID-related hiatus in 2020.

LiUNA organizer Octavio Chung Bustamante was one union trades member who worked the fair this year. He said he wasn’t surprised by the high marks in the poll. “It is because people realize we are for good benefits with a good pension. Plus we offer great training for our members so they can do the best possible job.”

Todd Dahlstrom, Organizing/Growth Director of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, thought that through the pandemic worker safety became an issue and unions make a difference for their members. “Having a seat at the table was important to keep workers safe during these trying times the last two years,” he said.

“Essential workers” is a phrase Americans have become familiar with during this era and union trades members have proven themselves to be just that. Added Dahlstrom, “Union trades do all the things that make the world work.”





Read more

Giving is Natural for the Trades

When Saint Paul Building Trades Construction Council Executive Secretary Don Mullin was standing out on the street motioning cars to come into the IBEW 110 food give away, a woman pulled up to ask him, “Are you really giving away free food?” When Mullin answered in the affirmative, she thanked him and told him her prayers had just been answered on her drive home. “I didn’t know how I was going to feed my family tonight.”

This past winter members of the Minnesota Building Trades put their feet and backs into helping distribute food to struggling people in their communities as part of Round 5 of the Farmers to Families Food Box program, a nationwide Coronavirus Food Assistance Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“The need is great all over,” said Saint Paul Labor Studies and Resource Center’s Erica Dalager-Reed. “You have one in six people in Minnesota living with food insecurities. The need was there before COVID. The need is even greater now.”

The St. Paul Regional Labor Federation under the Labor Studies and Resource Center became a broker of food for the state of Minnesota. Through this arrangement with the USDA, the unions received food deliveries and they proved particularly qualified to distribute it. While food shelves consist mostly of non-perishable pantry items, these food stuffs contain perishable foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and meat and dairy products. Food trucks arrived on site carrying 40,000 lbs. of food separated into 23 palettes with 70 boxes on each palette. The trade unions provided the equipment to move the food, the manpower required for the heavy lifting, and the space to house the food for pick up. Precautions had to be taken for COVID, so contactless pick ups were done.

Both current and retired union members from across the building trades participated in 22 events just in March alone. The program expires early this spring; there’s hope Congress will extend it again.

Barry Davies, financial secretary/treasurer of Iron Workers Local 512, said, “Helping out was a natural for us. We feel very fortunate because we have worked all year. It’s a chance for us to give back to the community.”


Read more

Union Building Trades Help Share the Spirit

Every year Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud reaches out to ask the community to help families in difficult financial times throughout Central Minnesota for a chance to enjoy Christmas and the Holiday Season. The “Share the Spirit” program matches families in need who are nominated by area social workers and education professionals with individuals or businesses that buy presents for them. Some gifts are needs and some are wants, of course. The people or organizations agree to spend at least $70 on each family member. Gifts are taken in just one day before the families come to pick them up. This is where the union building trades put the muscle in the program.

Through the leadership of the Central Minnesota Building Trades, union trades men and women volunteer their time for two days unloading car loads of gifts and then distributing them to cars of families the next day. “We are like Santa’s elves,” explained Mike Ganz, President of the Central Minnesota Building Trades Union. “We get members of every trade to come out and help. It’s a great program.”

“Without their support, we would not be able to make this happen,” said Bambi Holloway, Program Coordinator of Share the Spirit.

Read more

The Building Strong Communities Program Goes Virtual

“Plans are useless; but planning is invaluable,” as Winston Churchill said.  And in 2020 that wisdom speaks volumes. This year FCF assisted the construction industry when plans needed changing.  We provided visual creative services for the Building Strong Communities Program (BSC), which was designed and managed by the Metropolitan Council, but required many participants.

BSC is a construction and building apprenticeship preparatory program with a mission to expand the diversity of the talent pool and develop new workers. The majority of participants are women and people of color, who were largely unaware of the opportunities in the building trades. It’s a collaboration among ten unions, Met Council, Minnesota Department of Labor & Industry, Construction Careers Foundation, Ramsey County, Minnesota Department of Transportation, community-based organizations, developers and North Hennepin Community College.

The first group of BSC students came together in the winter of 2020 expecting the that classes would be done by early spring. These plans changed with COVID and civil unrest. The BSC program canceled all in-person activities and shifted from in-person learning into a virtual classroom.

Leadership in the Trades asked if we could help. FCF produced seven videos ranging from 40-60 minutes in length, six of which were guided tours by each  training director. “FCF was instrumental in shifting to trade exploration modules that entailed informational/virtual tour videos, followed by interactive trade and JATC leadership discussion webex sessions,” explained Jenny Winklaar, with the Operating Engineers Local 49 and one of the co-administrators of the BSC Program. The videos also included work demonstrations for the potential apprentices to see what skills each trade requires and what a day of school at the facility was like.

“Serving as the backbone of the BSC program curriculum, these videos played a foundational part in helping participants identify and pursue a trade. Feedback from participants show a high level of appreciation and enjoyment of the videos,” said Aaron Koski, workforce manager with Met Council. The videos will also be a part of the curriculum for the 2021 class. 

Despite these obstacles, the BSC program successfully has placed 13 females and people of color into more than six different trades. The program recognized its first graduating class with a virtual celebration on Sept. 30.  We’re proud to help.



Read more

The Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, Construction Standards, and Wages

As the construction industry begins to slowly recover from major shutdowns earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, residential construction appears to be a major contributor to this recovery. This should not necessarily come as a surprise, however, considering the high demand for single-family homes, low interest rates, and the increasing need for affordable housing. In fact, according to a 2019 report from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, there is a shortage of affordable housing for about 65,000 extremely low-income households in Minnesota. This number is now likely higher due to the economic impact of the pandemic. While the construction of affordable housing certainly creates jobs, the use of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC) as the primary tool for financing this needed development may actually depress construction standards and wages.

The LIHTC program is the largest federal housing program and is run by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Under the program developers who agree to develop or preserve affordable housing are allocated tax credits from the IRS, which are then essentially sold to investors who get a tax credit for ten years. There are two tax credit levels: a 9% tax credit program for investment projects that are generally extremely low income and supportive housing, and a 4% tax credit for all other affordable housing projects. The LIHTC program, therefore, works as a tool to induce private financing in the development of affordable housing.

As a tool for encouraging private investment, the LIHTC program serves as a backstop for private investors by providing security for their investments. Furthermore, while there are generally requirements for the length of time in which an affordable housing development must remain affordable – usually between 15 and 30 years – there is not a requirement of permanent affordability, unlike publicly financed and publicly owned housing that is generally permanently affordable. The LIHTC program therefore serves to offset near term capital inputs for the development of affordable housing, while still allowing for profits down the road after the affordability term expires.

The LIHTC program allows for private developers to take advantage of, and eventually profit off of a public need for housing, by keeping affordable housing construction within the private real estate market. This inherent problem has trickle down harms and consequences for construction standards and wages. Housing projects that are publicly owned and that receive direct public sector funding oftentimes carry numerous requirements that benefit the construction industry. These requirements may include workforce development initiatives, the purchase of American steel and materials, and prevailing wages. Privately financed housing projects, however, generally do not incorporate these requirements or have compliance structures in place to enforce them. Therefore, despite being the largest federal affordable housing program, the LIHTC program has few, if any, regulatory mechanisms that promote high standards and good wages in residential construction.

As the need for affordable housing continues to grow, residential construction is likely to increase as new projects emerge. While the LIHTC program certainly encourages near-term development, its lack of permanency and industry supportive requirements may have long-term negative effects for both tenants and workers. In order to meet both the demand for affordable housing and the need for high standards in residential construction, greater public sector financing and ownership is needed.

Read more