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Posts by Gary Johnson

Union Building Trades Help Bring Bentleyville to Life

Now in its 19th year, Bentleyville, the nation’s largest walk-through Christmas light display, once again lights up Bayfront Park on the Lake Superior shoreline in Duluth with five million lights.  The 128-foot Christmas tree made by Iron Workers Local 512 glistens in the evening sky next to Duluth Harbor at the center of the festival.  “It’s truly the centerpiece not only of Bentleyville but of the city of Duluth,” said Nathan Bentley, founder of Bentleyville. 

According to Brian Nelson, Region B Apprentice Coordinator, the tree is built in three sections at the training facility in Hermantown. It’s then trucked down to Bayfront Festival Park and assembled over the course of two days in October. “We usually have a crew of 15 iron workers, an operator running the crane, and we all volunteer,” Nelson explained.

One addition to Bentleyville this year is the expanded gift shop. The previous one was 800 square feet. The new one constructed by the iron workers and the carpenters local has 4,000 square feet. “All the unions mean very, very much to Bentleyville. Their great partnership has made Bentleyville what it is today with their community support,” Bentley said. 

“It’s amazing to be a mayor of a community where we have this kind of support for a beautiful free event for hundreds of thousands of families,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said. “Duluth has 86,000 residents. Over the course of the Bentleyville season we’ll have 200,000-300,000 people come through here. It’s incredible.”

Bentleyville runs in the evening seven days a week through Dec. 26.  For more information, check the Bentleyville web site.

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Construct Tomorrow: Uniting Students with Careers in the Trades

Now in its 10th year, Construct Tomorrow continues to unite young people with futures in the building construction trades. With participation from the union trades members, students can get hands-on experience to a life in trades with tools not available in school like virtual welding and excavation in a simulator. They also get first-hand knowledge of the lifestyle benefits, the solid wages and well-earned pensions from members who have lived the career experience.

Two seniors from Ely, Minn., made the hour-long drive down to the Eveleth event and found it very practical. Luna Klingsporn got into an iron worker’s harness and walked across a beam suspended several feet above the floor. “I thought it was really fun, doing the beam thing and getting to walk across. But I’m kinda terrified of heights sometimes.” She discovered, however, bricklaying might be more to her liking. “That was cool… to see how you could do that.” Her friend Madelin Gruba, who’s headed to Hibbing Community College next year to study HVAC, said she “asked a lot about the apprenticeship process.”

With two events already completed (Moorhead and Ely), Construct Tomorrow forges ahead with another eight events during the 2022-23 school year. Three more are scheduled this calendar year (Rochester, Mankato and Brooklyn Center) with five more in 2023 (St. Cloud, Hinckley, Shakopee, Forest Lake and Duluth).

To check out future Construct Tomorrow events, please check out their web site,

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Gallup Labor Day Poll 2022: Labor Unions Approval Continues to Rise

Labor unions’ favorability among Americans has improved even more since last year according to a poll released this week by Gallup, the internationally renowned polling organization. Seventy-one percent of Americans now approve of labor unions, up from 64% before the pandemic. It’s now at the highest level Gallup has recorded since 1965.

Sixteen percent of Americans live in a household with one person who’s a union member, down one percent from last year’s poll. But that number is still within the 14% to 21% range Gallup has recorded on union households since 2001.

According to Gallup, the most important reasons for joining a union are better pay and benefits (65%) and employee rights and representation (57%). Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council President Joe Fowler weighed in on the poll’s results: “We have a favorable environment now because people want representation. They want their voices heard. The way to do that is as a collective voice through labor.”

It’s no surprise the benefits package is an important factor in union membership. Added Fowler, “And we offer a quality product as organized labor. With good wages and training that benefits workers. Healthcare and medical costs are important, too, because you are better off buying those as a collective than buying it on your own.”

Gallop’s “Bottom Line” on the poll included this summation: “The low unemployment rate that developed during the pandemic altered the balance of power between employers and employees, creating an environment fostering union membership that has resulted in the formation of unions at several high-profile companies. While already on an upswing, public approval of unions has only increased further during the pandemic and is now at a level not seen in nearly six decades.”


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Building Trades: Keeping Their Promise

As part of its commitment to become a Yellow Ribbon Company, Laborers Local 563
provided support from cooking to supervising the Minnesota National Guard’s Family Fun Day in June. “We are working to become a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon organization at the state building trades level,” said Local 563 member and Minnesota Building Trades President Joe Fowler. The local regularly does job site feeds, bringing out their tractor-trailer which easily transports cooking grills and all the necessary supplies to feed, in this case, a small army. “They were expecting 1,200 people but I think they surpassed that.”

Minnesota has one of the largest contingents of National Guard in the nation. But when a soldier is called up and deployed, their family shares in the sacrifice. Beyond the Yellow Ribbon embraces those affected by military deployments, helping them through a myriad of resources provided by local businesses to navigate everyday life with a family member gone. Adds Fowler, “We are fortunate to be apart of it.”

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LIUNA Mixes Fun with Serious Health Prevention Counsel

After receiving feedback from LIUNA members, health providers and LINUA leadership, Local 563 incorporated those suggestions into this year’s health fair at their training center in Hugo, Minn. It also gave the local a chance to showcase their new 37,000-foot addition at the center, the Fred Chase Building.

“First off, it was great to get our events going again and secondly, it was wonderful to provide a great health fair experience for all 1,000 of our attendees and participants,” explained Dwight Engen, steering committee team member for Local 563.

Aside from the usual opportunities for members to sign up for hearing checks, mammograms and to donate blood, the mission this year was to place a special focus on mental health with the This Amazing Life interactive exhibit put on by Sand Creek EAP. Speakers included Bob Swanson with a message on suicide prevention and, on a lighter note, outdoor enthusiasts and TV personalities Ron and Laura Schara.

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Women’s Participation in the Building Trades Coming to Fruition

The fourth annual Women Building Success Awards came back this month, two and a half years after the last ceremony was held and this time at a new venue, Kellmerman’s Event Center in White Bear Lake. The program was created in 2017 to recognize outstanding women workers in the local building trades.

The term “paying it forward” was evident in the women who won awards. Terri Stave, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, began her career with Elevator Constructors Local 9 as a 19-year-old. Now retired from her trailblazing career, she went on to be an instructor and business agent with Local 9. On the other end of the career arc are Marissa Goodsky, winner of the Journeyperson of the Year, and runner up for Advocate of the Year, Rosey Grab. Goodsky has begun teaching with Cement Masons Local 633; Grab is still an apprentice with Operating Engineers Local 49.

“We have these programs encouraging women to have a career in the building trades, hoping that they are wildly successful,” said Jenny Winkelaar, Local 49 members and a board member of Women Building Success. “We are seeing our programs are successful at retaining people. We believe we are starting to see future leaders.”

Winners and an honorable mention were awarded in the following categories:

● Lifetime Achievement Award – Terri Stave, a retired member, instructor and officer with Elevator Constructors Local 9.

● Apprentice of the Year – Karin Dahlin, Pipefitters Local 539. Honorable Mention: Dani Moss, Laborers (LIUNA) Local 563 and Claire Boeke, Carpenters Local 322.

● Journeyworker of the Year – Marissa Goodsky, Cement Masons Local 633. Honorable Mention: Brittney Bray, Operating Engineers Local 49

● Advocate of the Year –Robin Chuhel, IBEW Local 110. Honorable Mention: Rosey Grab, Operating Engineers Local 49.

In addition to the award, winners in each category received a $300 honorarium and a set of Milwaukee tools. Honorable mention recipients received $100 honorariums.

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Spring Training for Pilederivers

During the spring the Minnesota Twins head to Florida for spring training. The Piledrivers of Local 1847, on the other hand, head north to Hinckley, Minn., to practice their trade at the Local 49 Training Center. “We are cross training with the 49ers,” explained Danre Vitullo, instructor for Local 1847. “Without the operating engineers, we can’t do our work. And without us they can’t do the piledriving which reinforces the foundation a large structure sits on.” Those large structures are the things we depend on – bridges, buildings, power plants, etc.

The collaboration between the operating engineers and the piledrivers existed for five years prior to Covid 19 curtailing the program for two years. With 24 piledrivers on board, this year’s group surpassed Vitullo’s expectations with their participation: “I told them to ask all the questions you have. If you have a question, somebody else probably does too. This is the time and place to do it.”

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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.

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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.



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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:

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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.”



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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.”




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