Building Season Looks Strong for Union Trades

YOUNGSTOWN – Robust construction in the public, commercial and residential sectors is not likely to abate anytime soon – providing a sense of comfort and security for members of the local building trades unions that could last years.

Even in the dead of winter, the trades are in high demand with ongoing projects. Moreover, their leadership projects a spring season jammed with new opportunities and the promise of federal infrastructure spending that has the potential to greatly increase activity over the long-term.

“We have full employment,” says Jim Burgham, business manager with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 64. The local staffs about 360 electrical workers out of its hall on Western Reserve Road in Boardman. “Right now, there are no unfilled calls.  We’re not hurting for anyone but we’re not laying anyone off.”

Many of the union’s signatory contractors are busy with major projects that have dominated their time over the past year.  In Monaca, Pa., IBEW 64 has members working at Royal Dutch Shell’s $6 billion sprawling ethane “cracker” plant.  In Lordstown, crafts are heavily engaged in the construction of Ultium Cells LLC’s $2.3 billion electric-vehicle battery manufacturing plant and retooling Lordstown Motors Corp.’s factory to prepare for that company’s production of the all-electric Endurance pickup.

“The outlook is good,” Burgham says.  

Aside from the larger projects, other metrics in the economy bode well for trade occupations this year.  Most promising is the residential housing market, he says, a sector that is normally sluggish during the winter months.

“Residential and housing are really strong,” Burgham says.  “That’s surprising, especially during this period.”  Even more heartening is that the market isn’t limited to the remodeling business that spiked in the throes of the pandemic.  Instead, a significant amount of new housing starts has helped to create opportunities for the electrical trades.  

“The housing stock is tight right now.  It seems like there are new housing starts breaking each day,” he says.

Commercial projects such as Meijer’s store in Boardman and continuing work at Mercy Health St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital and Akron Children’s Hospital provided more work last year for IBEW Local 64, Burgham says. “The commercial side looks like it’ll be good in 2021.”

The building trades are also optimistic of more jobs through public-sector projects planned for this year and hopefully beyond.

A critical part of this outlook depends on whether Congress passes legislation to fund a massive overhaul of the country’s infrastructure, such as highways and bridges, says Jim Ledenko, business manager for Laborers 935 in Warren.

“I’d say about 80% of our work is highway and public works,” Ledenko says. The local union boasts just more than 300 members.  

Much of the highway work is on hiatus since the cold weather settled in, Ledenko says. But the spring season looks promising with new projects such as upgrades at wastewater treatment plants in Warren and Brookfield.  

“These are $20 million to $30 million projects,” Ledenko says.  “The biggest project we’re involved with is Ultium right now. But the major work we do is on larger public works projects.”

As such, a major infrastructure bill would boost the prospects of just about all of the trades, particularly the laborers, Ledenko says. “We serve all the trades, so we’re pretty well represented on these jobs.  We’re the first ones there and the last ones to leave.”

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill. But the measure failed to get enough support in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. Plus, the Trump administration opposed the bill. Now, with Democrats holding a majority in the House, a slim majority in the Senate and control of the White House under President Joe Biden, organized labor believes a substantive infrastructure bill could be approved.

Last month during his confirmation hearings, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said he favors spending big on infrastructure, underscoring its importance to safety and stimulating the economy. Biden is expected to release his infrastructure plan in March.

“I think an infrastructure bill is critical going forward for the health of this country,” says Marty Loney, president of the Western Reserve Building and Construction Trades Council and business agent for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 396.

Loney says it was disheartening to many in labor when Biden, on his first day in office, issued an executive order striking down the Keystone XL Pipeline – a project whose path crossed the Oglala Aquifer, the major source of underground fresh irrigation water in the Great Plains.  However, a massive infrastructure bill could very well balance this out since it would put thousands of tradesmen to work, he says.

“Trump talked a lot about it but didn’t follow through,” Loney says. “We have to build this country back.”

He says it’s important to keep talking to elected officials and make sure they understand the needs and concerns of labor. “We just want to go to work. It’s nothing political. It’s a simple process.”

Loney says the Pipefitters local has about 40 members working at the $1.3 billion South Field Energy electrical generation plant in Wellsville while others are busy at the Shell cracker plant in Monaca.

“That project has upwards of 7,500 people working on it now,” Loney says of the Shell plant. “And we haven’t started to see the spinoffs,” he adds, noting the potential for plastics manufacturers and distributors in the region.

Moreover, there are indications that a second – and larger – ethane cracker complex could be built further south in Belmont County.  More than likely, that project would pull some local tradesmen to it, he says.

Pipefitters Local 396 boasts about 450 active members. About 40 are on layoff – some of them recently finished larger jobs and new projects have yet to start, Loney says. “They’ll be back,” he says. “Bidding activity is strong.”

Additional stimulus funding could mean more work for the trades, says Carlton Ingram, business agent for Operating Engineers Local 66. A comprehensive stimulus package that includes assistance to state and local governments would almost surely kickstart projects in Ohio, he says.

“There are projects on the books, but it’s a matter of funding,” Ingram says. “I believe there are monies for state and local communities that are long overdue.” This would include physical infrastructure projects as well as money used to support safety forces.

Operating Engineers Local 66 covers Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in Ohio, and another 26 counties in Pennsylvania.  

“We have almost 8,000 members,” Ingram says, noting Local 66 is the 13th largest Operating Engineers local in the country.  

The five-county region, which includes Lawrence and Mercer counties in western Pennsylvania, holds about 1,300 members who operate everything from bulldozers to cranes, excavators and asphalt paving equipment.

Elsewhere, Ingram says, his membership has been active across the region, evidenced by the abundance of bright orange safety cones and barrels along the Mahoning Valley’s thoroughfares.

“Some people get mad when they see those orange barrels,” Ingram says. “I like to see those orange barrels because I know men and women are going to work and supporting this community.”

The reconstruction of Fifth Avenue in downtown Youngstown is still a work-in-progress, while additional roadwork along Front and Commerce streets is planned, Ingram says.  

“It’s going to change the way downtown looks and open it up for business,” he says.

Pictured: In Lordstown, crafts are heavily engaged in the construction of Ultium Cells LLC’s $2.3 billion electric-vehicle battery manufacturing plant and retooling Lordstown Motors Corp.’s factory to prepare for that company’s production of the all-electric Endurance pickup.