New York, NY – Joseph Sellers, Jr. is the General President of SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. LaborPress had an opportunity to speak with him, before his keynote address at our Annual Luncheon and Golf Outing at the Pelham Bay Golf Course in the Bronx on Sept. 10. Here, Sellers, Jr. talks about the effects the pandemic on his workers and the union; how they coped; and what the union is doing to better serve its members during this unprecedented time.
LP: Please supply us with a brief overview of your union.
JS: SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, is one of North America’s most diverse unions with over 200,000 members across numerous industries. SMART’s members are responsible for the quality of the air we breathe, promote energy efficiency, and produce and provide the vital services that move products to market and passengers to their destinations. We are sheet metal workers, service technicians, bus operators, engineers, conductors, sign workers, welders, manufacturing workers, roofers and more.
With members in scores of different occupations, we advocate for fairness in the workplace, excellence at work and opportunity for all working families.
LP: Who was able to continue working during the pandemic?
JS: Like every union, it depended on the industry and geographical area in which the members were working. All SMART members were affected by the pandemic initially in an acute way as work stoppages at jobsites and railyards were impacted. School bus, transit operators and in some regions, construction were very adversely affected. With a huge decline in demand for passenger rail and public transit in urban areas as well as some districts not bringing children back into school buildings at all last year, people were left in limbo wondering if and when they would be getting back to work. Many have returned as the country still feels the effects of the pandemic and some have not.
Due to the nature of our industries, those who work on freight rail to continue the supply of goods and material moving and the verification and retrofit of air systems to ensure indoor air quality, we were able to return to work sooner due to the essential nature of the work we perform.
LP: How many members have been sick/died from COVID?
JS: Like the rest of society, our members were impacted by COVID and had grave concerns about their safety as they continued to perform essential work. We focused our efforts to ensure safety measures were put in place early on during the pandemic at worksites to protect members. With the safety of our members being the primary concern, we ensured they were provided with personal protective equipment, which was incredibly scarce during the early months of the pandemic – supplies were sent to our local unions and members directly from the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute (SMOHIT) to ensure their personal safety. Early on SMART also established a supply chain for KN 95 masks.
LP: Has the pandemic created situations where the employer learned how to work with fewer people? For example, if people retired early due to the pandemic, has the employer now had an excuse to lower the head-count?
JS: This has been the case in some sectors, but has not been the experience at least in the manufacturing sector of our union. The current trend is a tight labor market and unilateral employer wage increases in response to labor shortages.
LP: Are many of your members vaccine-resistant?
JS: SMART has used all avenues of communication to urge members to get vaccinated for their personal safety as well as the safety of their families and fellow members on worksites.
LP: Are there any policies that differentiate between vaccinated and non-vaccinated workers?
JS: As states and municipalities adjust their mandates, the trend among our US manufacturing employers has been to maintain masking protocols for unvaccinated workers, while those workers who can demonstrate they have been inoculated have been allowed to work without masking.
For those employed in the transportation industry, a long-overdue federal mask mandate was implemented by the new administration that came into office in 2021. Prior to that, especially in the early days of the pandemic in 2020, the responsibilities for carriers to provide a clean and safe working environment were left to the transportation carriers themselves — with predictably inconsistent results.
LP: What special ways has the union reached out to members to provide info on COVID-19 updates and safety protocols, new policies, etc.
JS: With the COVID-19 pandemic being an unprecedented crisis, SMART knew it was incredibly important to provide information and guidance to our local leadership and members. Starting right from the beginning, SMART reached out to members with regular email, text, social media updates and videos with information on safety protocols, legislative updates, personal protective equipment and what to look for to ensure they stayed safe at work and at home when they return to their families. SMART also engaged in a 2020 and a 2021 campaign to call every member to check in on them. We also provided regular updates on our website. We continued these efforts in partnership with signatory employers at SMACNA to devise industry notices to protect members and the general public at facilities we work in. This was especially important for union sheet metal workers who played a critical role in ensuring temporary care centers were set up and hospital air quality was kept clean and safe as operations continued.