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Labor

Boilermakers Keep Lakers in Ship Shape

 

As the weather begins to warm up and the snow begins to melt, another rite of spring begins in Minnesota — the shipping season starts on the Great Lakes. The giant ships locked in Duluth-Superior Harbor during the winter months return to the lake, passing under one of the most iconic landmarks in the state: the Aerial Lift Bridge. 

Most of the ships are not new to those dedicated to tracking the ships that come and go. Known as “lakers,” the average ship is 40-50 years old with some older than that. And they are massive, ranging from two football fields in length (600-700 feet) to three football fields (1000 feet). In spite of their age, they are very efficient. A ship can move a ton of freight (whether its mining products like taconite from Northern Minnesota to agricultural ones such as corn and soybeans) over 600 miles on one gallon of fuel.

So how does a ship that’s so old with such heavy cargo keep working? They are well-maintained. The ships that come in Duluth-Superior Harbor are worked on by the boilermakers of Local 647 throughout the winter. They brave the cold conditions that occur even inside the ship (sometimes the temperature dips to minus 20) to make needed repairs. They do a wide variety of things, from replacing floors to repairing cargo holds and conveyor belts and even replacing engines. The boilermakers’ involvement doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. They often travel with a ship to its destination port, repairing and keeping its parts functioning. 

Rarely does a laker sink on the Great Lakes. (The last one was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975.) The reason is the professionalism of the crews and the trades people who keep the ship running: the boilermakers. Thanks to Local 647 for keeping freight flowing and for keeping these vessels in ship shape.

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Construct Tomorrow: Events are Canceled, Futures are Not

Construct Tomorrow finished its 2019-20 schedule after scheduling nine events across Minnesota, but doing just eight. “We had to cancel our Moorhead even in late March,” said Tim Bussse, Executive Director of Construct Tomorrow. “It was really disappointing because they did a lot of work. Given the situation with the governor’s restrictions on public gatherings due to COVID-19, there’s nothing we could do. We promised them we’d be back next year though!”

Construct Tomorrow will continue the career fairs into the future. Before the global pandemic interrupted everyday commerce, the events were on track to attract approximately 8,000 Minnesota high school students. When it comes to feedback from the events, Busse says students actions speak louder than words. With activities from all the different trades on hand (from pounding nails to working with wet cement), it’s easy to witness their curiosity from their involvement. The most direct feedback comes from teachers and school counselors, however. “More often than not they are pleasantly surprised at how engaged their students were at the event,” he said.

Construct Tomorrow measures success directly by the number of students who enroll in the trades after high school. “We don’t have specific numbers — which is something we have to work on — between Construct Tomorrow and the other events that recruit students into construction trades apprenticeship programs,” Busse said. “The numbers are going up, but we need to put it all together so there is that bright line between the two.”

Going forward, one change that may be coming to select events will be the addition of an evening session geared toward adults. In some markets, the demand for workers is so pronounced that finding people who can move into apprentice training programs right away is a priority. “High school students are playing for the long game, expanding their career horizons. The evening session would be to the general public. Ideally we’d like kids to come back at night with their parents, but it would mainly be geared for adults who want to do more. People who are underemployed, who want to switch careers,” Busse said.

For example, one market that’s a candidate for the evening session is Duluth. The city is amidst a $300(m) hospital building project along with highway construction projects in the works. Northern Minnesota is bustling with construction activity and needs workers who don’t merely tolerate winter weather, but embrace it. As Busse put it, “We are looking forward to next year, recruiting the next generation who want to work in the trades — and enjoy the benefits of being in the trades.”

Here are some reactions from four guidance counselors who attended Construct Tomorrow events with their students:

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14th Annual Injured Apprentices Fundraiser

The country’s late night TV entertainment has its Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) and a Conan (O’Brien). But, he Minnesota Building Trades has its Larry. Larry Gilbertson, the president of the Apprenticeship Coordinators Association, once again emceed the 14th Annual Injured Apprentice Dinner at Mancini’s Restaurant Monday night, Feb. 3. The annual affair raises money for the injured apprentices fund. While the mission is serious, the accompanying program always has some humor injected into it when the Gilbertson slips into stand up comedy mode: “That reminds me of a joke I heard….”

“We like to think of ourselves as a family, maybe a big, dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless’” Gilbertson joked afterwards. “And so we need to take care of our younger brothers and sisters, especially if they are just starting out in the trades. If they are apprentices in their first couple of years, they don’t have a nest egg built up yet like some of the journeyworkers would.”

If an apprentice gets h

urt and they are off the job for more than 30 days, he or she can get a check to be used for wherever they need it. The money can be used to help pay the bills, pay the rent; it’s something to get them over the hump until they are back to work again.

Last year the fund paid out 19-20 checks to members of 12 different trades most of whom were injured off the job and thus ineligible for worker’s comp, according to Gilbertson. “Especially when you are coming into the Holiday Season and any other time when you need to have that extra cash flow, a check for $595 can really help those young folks out.”

“Off the job we are all outdoors people/folks. We’re out on snowmobilers, four wheelers, motorcycles. Sometimes those checks are going to someone who was injured in a vehicle accident,” Gilbertson explained.

“We get a great commitment from all the trades. All day long the people who are here tonight – the coordinators, the instructors, the business agents, the business managers – they work all day long helping out our apprentices yet still make time on a Monday night to help them out even more.”

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Like Mother, Like Daughter: Brays Work Together as 49ers

When work on the I-35W Downtown to Crosstown project resumes in earnest this spring, Kim and Brittney Bray will be hard at work once again. Amidst the mountains of concrete piled high in the southbound lanes and the heavy equipment, the mother/daughter duo will be working as operating engineers and members of IUOE Local 49.

Their family legacy in the trades began with Kim’s brother who worked as a piledriver. “My brother told me they needed women and I was interested in joining the union. I went in and applied and got the job,” Kim said, now an 11-year veteran who started as a roller operator. The long hours and hard work don’t faze her. Her days as a working mother prepared her for life in the 49ers. “When I had kids when they were little I picked them up from day care and then I had to go back to work again. I’m used to working a lot.”

Her daughter Brittney graduated from Hamline with degrees in environmental studies and business. Soon thereafter she found herself at a dead end. “At the time (right out of college) I was working a call center job that I had worked at in college and I was pretty much miserable, sitting inside the office during the summer. Working at an office job stuck in a chair all day pretty much wasn’t my thing,” she explained. Like her mom, she heard the 49ers were looking for women so she applied. She made it into the apprentice program and eventually became a journeyworker.

They both enjoy the benefits of the work they do, but when they work they REALLY work. Working on the I-35W project involves long hours. During the summer, it’s meant 12-hour days, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and maybe longer, working six days a week, sometimes seven. The project involves lots of people from several different crews because the work is so varied. New bridges, walls for the sides of the highway, underground roads, utilities like water, sewer and electrical work — lots of construction you don’t see when you’re driving by. “We often work on top of each other with the different crews,” Brittney said. “You get used to the long hours. It can catch up on you as far as getting things done around the house and having a life. But the paychecks are good and the benefits are nice.”

One of the benefits for them has been having winters off from work. Brittney went to Thailand in December and Kim planned a trip to Houston for the two of them to see a Rolling Stones concert. Added Brittney, “You just have to be careful what you spend your money on during the summertime. If you budget things out, you can make it work.”

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Electricians Power Up Habitat for Humanity Home

Rice County Habitat for Humanity’s latest home project is located on Willow Street, one of the city’s main throughfares in Faribault, MN. But on one particular day in February, the residence stood out from neighbors’ homes because of all the cars parked in front. Thirty electricians from IBEW Local 110 descended to install wiring and control equipment through the entire house, from the basement through the upper floor and into the garage.  

The relationship between Local 110 and Rice County Habitat for Humanity dates back to 2000. The electricians started volunteering when Rice County Habitat for Humanity could only afford to develop one house a year. In 2019, they will be able to build four or five homes thanks to the volunteers of Local 110. “The work they do is incredible. Their work saves us between $12,000 to $18,000 per house,” explain Dana Norvold, executive director of Rice County Habitat for Humanity. “Everybody knows what to do, and they get it done fast. Plus, they’re a really nice community of people.”

Not only do the electricians donate their expertise, but they supply the parts and materials as well. And there’s never been a shortage of people who want to volunteer. According to Local 110’s Jeff Anderson, they’ve been able to combine the opportunity for electricians to sharpen their skills for residential housing with some fun. “We raffle off prizes and we have a catered lunch. With so much help, we get things done fast. I think those things have kept our people coming back,” he said.

Most of the work done by IBEW Local 110 electricians is industrial or commercial, so doing a single family home is a change of pace that helps keep their residential skills sharp. “At this time of year (winter), there’s not as much work so this helps us out. We give those who drive a distance a gas card in return for their help, too,” Anderson said. “In the summer when we’re busy, it’s more of a challenge to fit our work with Habitat in. But we always have enough people who want to do it.”

You can listen to the electricians hard at work here:

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Twin Cities IBEW EWMC Gives Back, 2018

Giving is the hallmark of the Christmas/Holiday Season. Union people don’t wait until Christmas to help their communities though; they do it year-round.

A case in point was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) International Day of Service 2018 this November. A group of electricians representing the the IBEW’s Electrical Workers Minority Caucus (EWMC) took time on a Sat., Nov. 17, to help out two groups in the Twin Cities.

IBEW Local 110’s Mike Roberts, President of the group’s minority caucus in St. Paul, joined with fellow workers at Conway to not only fix the fixtures but do some painting as well. “I have been blessed. So, for me personally, I think I should give help others out,” Roberts said. Added Chico Marino, the Vice Chair of the Minority Caucus in St. Paul, “The IBEW’s Minority Caucus has been around for 45 years. It’s been a great way for us to become part of the communities where we live.”

In Minneapolis Local 292 installed brand new LED lighting in Little Earth’s gymnasium. “We picked Little Earth because we want to get a recruiting foothold in the Native American community by showing our support for them. We hope we can show them a profitable lifestyle in the trades as a profession is achievable for them,” explained JaCory Shipp, President of Local 292 Minority Caucus. 

“They fixed our gym, which is also our community room. It is the heart of our community at Little Earth. We play basketball in there, hold our Christmas parties in there — everything!” Jolene Jones, President of the Little Earth Residents Association, said. “We needed new lighting in there for a long time. Now, thanks to them, we’ve got it!”

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