Billions of Dollars in Projects Empty Union Halls

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The union hall at Laborers’ Local 935 in Warren is quiet these days.

Such silence is welcome because all 350 members of the local are busy on job sites across the region.  Industrial projects, roadwork, public utility upgrades and commercial construction activity are commanding more time among the construction trades than in recent years, an indication of a robust building season.

“We’re at full employment and it’s looking good for us over the next few years,” says Jim Ledenko, business manager at Local 935.

Upgrades at wastewater treatment plants in Howland, Brookfield and Farmington stand to keep trades occupied over the building season while road resurfacing projects along Interstate 80 in Trumbull County are likely to draw from Local 935 as other jobs wrap up.  

In the near term, Ledenko says potential private commercial projects such as a possible Meijer store in Niles and a second natural gas-fueled power plant in Lordstown bode well for subsequent years.

Moreover, Ledenko says the union isn’t strapped for manpower as of yet – the amount of available work is nearly perfectly balanced with Local 935’s labor supply.  

“We’re doing real well right now,” he says.

One of the largest road construction projects in Mahoning County will take three years to complete. The Ohio Turnpike will replace pavement for six miles leading to the Eastgate toll plaza. Two lanes of traffic will be maintained into the plaza and travel out of the plaza will be reduced to one lane in a bi-directional work zone. Construction on the westbound side will take place in 2022. The $39.9 million project includes construction of a new toll plaza to accommodate the new toll collection system that begins in 2023.

Work along the turnpike and public utility projects also means opportunity for those who operate heavy machinery used to haul, grade, demolish and pave roadways, says Brian Wydick, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66.

“We probably have about 40 projects, each worth $1.5 million or greater,” Wydick says, referring to work in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties. Turnpike work at the Eastgate toll station, for example, stands at about $40 million.  “They’re doing away with those toll booths to make it three lanes,” he says.  A similar project is underway in western Trumbull County in Braceville. 

In Youngstown, contractors are preparing to start on the second phase of the $28 million SMART2 project, which includes work along Commerce Street downtown to connect with the Phase I thoroughfare along Fifth Avenue. Phase I is scheduled for completion this summer. Preliminary work on the second phase should begin later this year.

The activity is likely to keep operating engineers busy for the rest of this year and into 2022,.

“I wouldn’t say we’re at full employment yet. But we’re pretty close,” Wydick says.

Still, the fulcrum of building trade activity is Ultium Cells LLC’s $2.3 billion electric-vehicle battery manufacturing plant in Lordstown and organized labor leaders are encouraged that the relationship with local trades will continue as the plant ramps up for production next year.  

“All of the crafts are at the Ultium site,” says Marty Loney, president of the Western Reserve Building Trades Council.  The Council boasts 25 local unions as members that represent more than 15 trades. “We’ve got more than 800 out there.”

The Ultium project is a joint venture between General Motors and Korea-based LG Energy Solution. The plant will manufacture battery cells used in GM’s new electric-vehicle portfolio that it intends to launch next year.  A portion of the nearly three million-square-foot building is now enclosed and the company expects to begin moving in some equipment this summer.

“There are still packages being bid,” Loney says.  “Some of the contractors are from Detroit but they use local workers.”

Loney, who is also the business agent for Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 396, says the company, skilled trades and contractors hold quarterly meetings to discuss progress at the plant.  Agents from Local 396, he says, are on the site at least once a week to assess any issues that might arise.

But the Ultium project is much more than just a large work site, Loney emphasizes.  

The plant is the first of its kind in the world, and as such the eyes of the entire global EV industry are trained on this specific project. Not only does the plant represent ingenuity through GM and LG Energy Solution, it serves as a showcase for the talent and expertise of the workforce in the Mahoning Valley, he says.

“We have an opportunity with this to show the world what this Valley can do,” Loney says.

While the near-term looks strong for the local trades, opportunities could explode should Congress and President Joe Biden agree on a massive plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, Loney says.

Plans are in the works to improve roads and thoroughfares throughout the region, Loney says. A robust infrastructure bill, plus monies provided to government subdivisions through COVID-19 relief funds, could become a decisive moment toward the restructuring of the entire area.

“We have the chance to transform the Mahoning Valley with this,” Loney says. “We expect to see long-term investment and job creation so that generations can be changed as a result.  If you invest in the community, you’ll have people stay.”

The $22 million renovation of the Main Library of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County is expected to be completed early next year.

Other projects slated for this year include ongoing work at Youngstown State University and Akron Children’s Hospital, Loney reports. And there is still optimism over the construction of a multi-billion dollar petrochemical plant in Belmont County, which would most likely require additional manpower drawn from trades in the Mahoning Valley.  

“There are some really nice projects coming out,” Loney says. “It’s an exciting time to be in the construction industry.  It seems like all of the trades are doing well.”

Tony Deley, business manager for Ironworkers Local 207 in Youngstown, says his membership is busy, but notices that the pandemic might have delayed some projects that would otherwise be in full swing right now.

“We’re about 95% employed. But it’s quiet out there now,” he says.

That’s because some projects that were placed on hold because of COVID-19 are just now getting underway, he says. “I’d say it’s a slow start for late spring. May was quiet for us.”

Industrial projects appear to be driving a substantial amount of work for the Ironworkers, Deley says.  “We need those mills and the maintenance work,” he says.  

Steel prices are high at the moment, and several operations in the region have opted to resume investments that were postponed as a result of the pandemic.

Among these projects is the installation of a new walking-beam furnace at NLMK Pennsylvania in Farrell, Pa. “We’ve just started the rebar work in the underground,” Deley says.  T

The furnace is used to pre-heat steel slabs before they are rolled in the company’s hot-strip mill. The new furnace would replace three pusher-type furnaces currently in operation at NLMK.

Another industrial project is the reactivation of Koppel Steel’s plant in Koppel.  The company’s parent, Tenaris, announced in April that it would resume production at its melt shop in Koppel and its seamless pipe mill in Ambridge, Pa. 

“We’ve been working with the subcontractors to fire it up,” Deley says.

Ironworkers Local 207 covers a broad jurisdiction that includes all of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, plus portions of Ashtabula, Geauga and Portage counties in Ohio. The local also covers all of Mercer, Lawrence and Venango counties and parts of Beaver and Butler counties in Pennsylvania.

The Ironworkers local has taken part in just about every major industrial project in the region, including expansions at Ellwood Group in New Castle, Sharon and Hubbard; Ultium Cells; and three new electrical plants in Lordstown, New Castle and Wellsville.

Moreover, the abundance of work and the rosy project forecast five years out is continuing to attract new apprentices each year, Deley says, preparing a pipeline of talent into the trades.

A new round of interviews for apprentices should begin in September, he says, and Local 207 expects to hire between 30 and 40 new apprentices through the process.

“There’s a lot of interest, most of it through word of mouth and social media,” Deley says. “We have 87 apprentices – that’s big for us.  We would typically carry half of that.”

Pictured at top: This drone shot of the Ultium Cells construction site in Lordstown shows vibrant colorful stripes on the factory walls. The drone flew over on June 7, 2021.