Union Leaders Voice Optimism about Projects

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Construction of the $2.3 billion General Motors/LG Chem battery plant in Lordstown represents just one opportunity for the local construction trades.

Leaders of the locals of several labor unions say they already are at or near full employment.

“It’s been a good year. It’s been a good couple of years,” says Jim Lendenko, business manager for Laborers International Local 935. 

According to Lendenko and Tony Deley, business manager for Local 207 of the Ironworkers union, the contractor for the GM/LG Chem battery plant, Barton Malow, has committed to using all union skilled trades for the project. As Lendenko puts it, “100% union, 100% local.” 

“We’re at 100% employment,” reports Rocky DiGennaro, business agent for the 420-member Laborers Local 125. The same is true for Lendenko’s 300-plus member Local 935 as well as Local 809.

DiGennaro points to a pair of ethane cracker plants under construction within a 300-mile radius, one with 8,000 workers on site and another with up to 10,000. “I could use 100 more laborers right now, but I don’t have them because some people can’t pass a drug test. That’s a serious problem,” he says. 

“It seems like anybody that wants to be working is working,” affirms Tony DiTommaso, business agent for Carpenters Local 171, which has 600 active members. DiTommaso is also secretary/treasurer for the Western Reserve Building and Construction Trades Council. 

DiTommaso’s members are working on projects including the South Field Energy power plant in Wellsville, the Shell ethane cracker plant at Monaca, Pa., and the Hickory Run power plant in Lawrence County. “Of course, our local contractors have them all over the Valley doing things,” including the $170 million HomeGoods regional distribution center in Lordstown, he says. 

Laborers are working on sanitary sewage plants in Girard and Howland and on road projects, Lendenko says. 

Members of the Operating Engineers, Laborers and Teamsters already are at work at the GM/LG Chem battery plant. “We’ll be onsite in two weeks,” says the Ironworkers’ Deley. 

Following initial concerns that their members would not be working on the HomeGoods distribution center, labor leaders negotiated with parent company TJX Companies Inc. Area ironworkers, carpenters, cement finishers, electricians and pipefitters now are working at the site, Deley says.   

“It was a fight,” Lendenko says. 

“As much as we had to fight to get some equity on that job, I commend TJX for coming to the table and coming up with some compromise,” Deley continues. “We didn’t get everything that we wanted; but at least we had our voice. They came to us and said, ‘What do we need to do?’ ”

Laborers also are involved with multi-county work on state Route 45 and the Ohio Turnpike.

Still, not all the trades are busy. 

Marty Loney, business agent for Local 396 of the  Plumbers & Pipefitters union, reports about 45% of his members are unemployed. That’s one reason he and members of his local were on hand June 3 for a job action at the site of the Old Dominion Freight Line terminal under construction in Lordstown, not far from the GM/LG battery plant. 

Plumbers and pipefitters who are working are at projects around the area that include local hospitals and assisted living centers. 

Work for Local 64 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is back up to about 90% of where it was before the pandemic, business manager Jim Burgham says. The local has about 360 active members. 

For a six-week period in March and April, employment for Local 64 members dipped to around 50%, then “picked back up pretty quick,” he says.“It didn’t seem like we lost any of the big projects as a result of the coronavirus,” although some slowed down or were delayed.

Local 64 has members working on hospital projects, Youngstown State University and Ellwood Group’s plant in Hubbard. Members also are gearing up to begin work at the Meijer store site in Boardman.

“The outlook is pretty positive,” Burgham says. “We’ll probably be able to maintain full employment for the rest of the summer. It should almost be a normal summer.” 

IBEW Local 573 also has most of its members working, reports business manager Mike Nemkovich. Of his 240 active members, about a tenth are not working but “the right phone call could get them all out to work,” he says. 

Some already are at the battery plant site working on temporary power setups, Nemkovich says. Nearby, at the Lordstown Motors Corp. plant, 11 members are working inside, he adds. 

Some projects are experiencing delays because of the coronavirus pandemic, says Carlton Ingram, business agent for the District 2 office of Local 66 of Operating Engineers union. “Despite the virus, we’re doing fairly well,” he says, “but we still have a lot of people off, too.” 

Ingram, who has members working at the battery plant site, describes Barton Malow as a “perfect example of a first-class company” that expressed its needs and worked “hand in hand with the building trades.” Bechtel Power Corp., which is developing the South Field Energy power plant in Wellsville, worked with the trades in the same manner, he adds.  

The main problem the trades face, one that dates to 2009, is finding skilled journeymen to replace the retirees, DiGennaro says. “We don’t have enough journeymen per apprentice, things like that,” he says.  

“We would like to expand our membership, give some citizens an opportunity to join us and make a good living wage,” Laborers Local 935’s Deley says. 

“We need people to be able to pass a drug test. We need people to have a high-school diploma,” DiGennaro adds. “Jobs are going unanswered every day and we can’t fill them.”

Pictured: This rendering of the $2.3 billion Ultium Cells LLC battery plant, the GM-LG Chem joint venture, shows its scale.