IUOE nears 1st 100 years with eye on change

By Tom Bergeron
New Jersey | Dec 21, 2017 at 10:06 am
From our print edition

Greg Lalevee, the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, has great thoughts on a number of issues:

  • The Transportation Trust Fund: “We’re starting to see projects in the $30-70 million range that remove choke points, get things moving faster”;
  • The need for comprehensive water and sewer upgrades: “The problem can only get worse”;
  • Union pensions: “This group has a fund and it’s well-maintained”;
  • And another union’s fight with state Sen. Steve Sweeney: “I think there’s a lot of things they could have done with $5 million rather than try to win one state Senate seat.”
  • But those are issues for today.

As the New Jersey Local of the union he represents approaches its 100th anniversary in 2020, Lalevee has bigger concerns. He’s worried about the next 100 years.

His members need better training to handle the technology upgrades that already are here. And he needs to find the right way to attract more members.

“We’re trying to make sure that we, in educational terms, elevate our platform of training and education,” he said. “We believe we have to meet the future needs to survive as an organization.

“Where the jobs are going to be requires us to be doing this. We can’t be behind the curve on this, because this curve is going to be sharper than any other.”

To do this, IUOE Local 825 is on the verge of converting its training school into an accredited technical college for higher education. One where students not only get the new training they need for the union, but an associate degree that could be used toward a four-year degree.

It is reaching out to vo-techs to improve its ability to get younger students involved in better training.

And it is trying to figure out how to reach out to a next generation of members.

“The kid that we hope to be an operating engineer soon is probably in the high school robotics club,” he said.

Lalevee touched on all these issues and more in a sit-down with ROI-NJ. Here is some of what was discussed.

ROI-NJ: Let’s talk about your union, and all the unions in the building trades. Technology is now the name of the game. How are you adjusting?

Greg Lalevee: We’re at the 100-year mark. And you can look around, I don’t care if its GM, Macy’s, whatever entity you want to say — you go a hundred years, that’s great. But how do you go another 100 years? There’s no successful business model in this world that hasn’t stepped sideways from their original constitution and been successful. That’s my message to our members all the time. We have to step sideways.

The sideways step for us is technology, because it’s there. And our guys, without even realizing it, are manipulating it every day. The GPS on bulldozers, the computers on cranes, the more efficient engines, they’re there every single day. Some of the large constructors out there can turn some of the service equipment on and off, and look at what hours are on the machines, from remote locations. The oil change might have to be done manually, but now somebody 100 miles away knows it needs to be done.

Water tunnels being built are using drones. The shafts are built, and they put the machine down that’s going to drill the tunnel, but, as they put the machine together, the supervisor, up in the job trailer upstairs, has a drone that’s watching it. That’s where technology is moving us. From a training and education standpoint, we’re working extremely hard to try to make sure we’re there, because the needs of the future are also going to be the needs of our members.

Construction is changing. For us, we have a serious concern about how our world is changing and is going to change. We’re mechanized. We run machines. And (artificial intelligence) is moving in at 100 miles per hour.

ROI-NJ: How is your training changing?

GL: We’re very proud of our training school and what we do there. We’ve done a great job in the last 30-50 years. Our natural gas pipeline installation is recognized by the industry; we run a milling and paving class. But, we’re in the process of changing.

We’re putting in an application to be an institute of higher learning. The vision here is, within the next year, to be a stand-alone two-year technical community college inside of our training center. What we’re looking to do is have an associate degree in applied science. And, we’re going to turn these into registered apprentice programs. This is directed straight at the robotics coming into the machinery, the programming and software that many machines have now.

How do we capture that, how do we make this not only an AAS in these disciplines, but also to get them aligned with the U.S. Department of Labor as apprenticeship programs so that we can continue to feed? The companies that we work for are all starting to, or going to start, branch this way. One of my business reps came in and said this employer is trying to team up with a school, not realizing that the union as an entity was running at this problem. We told them where we were going, and now they want to sit down and have a talk.

We’re trying to make sure that we, in educational terms, elevate our platform of training and education. We believe we have to meet the future needs to survive as an organization. Where the jobs are going to be require us to be doing this. We can’t be behind the curve on this, because this curve is going to be sharper than any other.

ROI-NJ: College is great. But, there’s also been a push to get more of the state’s vocational schools into this type of training. How are you working with them?

GL: We’ve begun the conversation with several vo-techs, where we want to have partnerships where we grab these kids when they are 15 or 16 and start to do actual training. There are simulators that do what we do, but it’s better if you have 60 acres of dirt to learn with (at our training centers).

How do we channel that kid from the vo-tech? Now, it will be a post-secondary education, too. Going up, we’re seeking partnerships with four-year institutions who will take our two-year degree on its face and allow our students to finish off a bachelor in whatever that applied science will look. So, if they want a pathway to that, it may happen through here.

(READ MORE from ROI-NJ with Greg Lalevee.)

ROI-NJ: Change is hard. How are your members handling these moves?

GL: It’s an arduous process, but in my mind’s eye, this has to be done. We’re not getting locked down into what’s traditional and what is not. I like to think outside of the mainstream. Not everyone gets it, but that’s OK.

I have one of my dearest friends on the executive board who will come in and say, ‘I still don’t see where this is going to help us?’ And I’ll say, ‘That’s because you still slide down the dinosaur tail the end of the day.’

ROI-NJ: The ‘Flintstones’ reference is great. But I’m guessing it’s also reality. Looking forward, you not only have to merge ideas of older members with a new generation from a different background. What is the operating engineer of the future going to look like?

GL: Today, it may be the guy who is 60, who looks a little gruff, might have the choppy kind of mustache and riding his Harley on the weekends or is out in the woods hunting. The kid that we hope to be an operating engineer soon is probably in the high school robotics club.

ROI-NJ: And the new members may also be from ethnic classes that have not been the traditional union members. How is that outreach?

GL: It’s been a slow change. When the Portuguese had a big influx into the construction market, there was a bit of resistance first. But it’s always been that way. I don’t know who came into the operating engineers first. But, if it was the Italians, I’m sure they didn’t like the Polish. And the Polish didn’t like the Irish and the Irish didn’t like the next group. Nobody likes the new kid on the block, but who’s the new kid on the block going to be?

It’s hard to attract people into construction in general. I don’t know what the divide is. We just have to fight it.

Here’s where we’re sort of bridging the divide. We endorsed Ravi Bhalla in his mayoral run for Hoboken. I had a member come up to me, and it was an older one, and said, ‘I never thought I’d see the day when this union would do that.’ I said, ‘Do what?’ It was a commentary on his ethnicity. I said, ‘Have you seen his infrastructure plan? Stuff that’s going to put you to work?’ I don’t really give a damn about his ethnicity. He’s got a good, thorough plan that will put you to work. That’s my kind of guy.’