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Building a new future for Range Communities

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HINCKLEY — On a fall day at the beginning of October, Aurora Mayor Dave Lislegard traveled south to Hinckley for a tour of the Local 49 Training Center with an old friend, Jason George.

It was a beautiful day in the North Country and the trees burst with shades of green, orange and reds during the few-hours drive from the mayor’s home on the Iron Range.

“Brother!” Lislegard greeted George with an enthusiastic handshake before a presentation and tour. On this October day, it was their first visit since George was elected by 49ers to the position of Business Manager/Financial Secretary earlier this year. He started in September.

“I love it,” George said of the union and his new position. “A lot of elected officials come through here,” he said of the Local 49 Training Center. “We show them the importance of what we do and how we help create jobs.”

George has been a member of the Local 49 union since 2008 when he was first hired in the political department. In those 10 years George has been a part of and led “the union’s efforts to build political power for the purpose of creating jobs and protecting our rights to collectively bargain,” states his bio on the union’s website.

“I am very proud to say that in the last 10 years, Local 49 has become one of the most powerful organizations in our region. We did that by working with both political parties. We have had a major hand in creating tens of thousands of union construction jobs in both the private and public sector. I am also proud to say that because of our work together, Minnesota is the only state in the Midwest that has not seen efforts to impose right to work or repeal prevailing wage.”

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Lislegard and George have known each other for several years through their work together on Jobs for Minnesotans, a collection of labor leaders, communities and the business sector. Together they helped connect different aspects of the Range including the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce and the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools to create one united lobbying voice in St. Paul and Washington, D.C.

Lislegard and George both see themselves as educators and advocates in their respective roles. Lislegard is a board member for Jobs for Minnesotans and the chamber, and is currently president of RAMS.

“As the anti-mining voice became louder, we came together,” Lislegard said of the forming of Jobs for Minnesotans, as the two met over burgers down the road from the training center. “Behind every rally and every bus has been Jobs for Minnesotans.”

In his younger days, Lislegard was a miner at LTV and a member of the United Steelworkers Local 4108, where his father and brother worked. The job gave him a lifelong appreciation and support of unions.

Now, more than a decade later, his daughter Hailey Lislegard is a member of Local 49 and a crane operator. She has completed training at this facility in Hinckley and, like all proud fathers, Lislegard was excited to see her classrooms and talk with instructors who remember the strong, young woman.

Local 49 is part of the International Union of Operating Engineers. Today, there are over 13,000 members in the Local 49 jurisdiction which includes Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“Our members work in many many different fields,” explained George, “from building projects in the energy sector like wind farms and oil pipelines, to building roads, bridges and transit projects to construction of buildings, and the construction of mines. Our members operate the equipment that makes all of these jobs possible. In addition, our members maintain infrastructure and equipment from the public sector city and county workers that plow and maintain your roads to the members that operate the wastewater facilities that keep your drinking water clean to the mechanics that maintain the equipment used in all of these projects.”

To become a member of Local 49, one must call a union hall and ask about job postings, if they have experience. If they don’t have experience, they can call the apprenticeship program to ask about learning opportunities.

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Opening up opportunities

“I want more opportunities for communities to get trainings,” said George while discussing the training center in Hinckley. “We have partnerships with local communities to improve current and future employees.”

The Local 49 Training Center is completely member funded. That means the employees and facility was built and maintained through union dollars only. Union members pay 50 cents/hour of work to the union. These dues create and maintain benefits to members including the training center.

There was no state or federal funding provided, which means the facility is owned by the union and is operated without obligations to other organizations or political whims. But the Local 49 Training Center also benefits its community by being the largest taxpayer in Pine County — a win-win benefit for the union and residents.

The facility in Hinckley was built in 2006 and opened in 2007. Before that, from 1983-2006, training was conducted in Rosemount.

The main building is 100,000 square feet of offices, classrooms and practical application space. The building is heated and cooled by geothermal technology.

“Remember, this is YOUR training center and the more you can operate the more employable you are,” said Training Center Director Layne Johnson, in the introductory letter of the “2017-2018 Training Report and Schedule.”

This training facility was built by 49ers for 49ers. Johnson and others frequently encourage members to take advantage of training opportunities, and the numbers are growing. Over the years, members trained at this facility have increased from 1,587 in 2000 and 4,108 in 2007 when the new facility was opened, to 5,000 in 2014.

Members who take advantage of the Training Center, receive a per diem for taking classes as well as motel and gas costs.

A second building was recently completed on the Hinckley site that highlights it success and importance to employees and businesses.

“The Crane Department will be located in the new building along with several other Training Center Employees,” stated Johnson’s letter. “The need for the expansion is a testament to the utilization our member are making of the Training Center.”

The Hinckley training center is on 384 acres that shares a border with St. Croix State Forest. The grounds house a wide variety of simulators and heavy operating equipment for members to apply their classroom education in real-life settings.

Johnson listed several new equipment purchases including: 700 JD Dozer equipped with both Trimble and Topcon, D39 Komatsu Dozer and a Caterpillar 307E2 Mini-Excavator.

“This equipment is a great asset to the Training Center and is available for your use year-round,” wrote Johnson.

Inside the center’s main building there is an area referred to as “the sandbox.” It is a sheltered area of sugar sand, which lowers the freeze temperature and allows year-round utilization for training.

During Lislegard’s time as a miner at LTV, one of his jobs was was operating a 200-ton overhead crane in the concentrator. In the “sandbox” he climbed into the crane simulator. Settling into the seat he commented on how different the controls in the cab were from when he worked cranes.

“I have a new respect for Hailey,” he said of his daughter as he climbed down from the simulator.

Further into the 2017-2018 training report there is “A Note to All Apprentices” by Brian Aske and Steve Tuhy. In it, they also encourage members to take advantage of training and practice at the facility.

“Set goals for yourself on what equipment you want to focus on for your career,” they advise. “The more equipment you can operate the more employable you are to the contractor.”

All training at this facility is focused on teaching safety, skill development and productivity.

Tom Sundly is a master instructor at the Local 49 Training Center in Hinckley and teaches many of the courses. He led the Ocotober tour.

“The more you know, the more likely you’ll be to be on the job,” explained Sundly.

Many 49ers take advantage of this training facility when they are laid off or work is slow. By expanding their resume, they are making themselves more likely to be re-hired when different specialities are needed on a project.

Sundly explained that having access to this hands-on training is valuable to union members because they are practicing in a controlled environment before getting into more stressful and dangerous situations.

He uses the example of digging trenches for a project like a pipleline or roadway. At the training center, if a mistake is made, the trainee can learn from it, move the excavator and start over. On the job, they’re costing the contractor time, money and reputation in correcting the error.

“They are paying for this,” said Sundly. “This is their facility and we work for them.”

Sundly and the other instructors, of which there are nine full-time and six part-time instructors, are there to help train their union members.

“They come here and spend seat time,” said Sundly. The courses instructors teach are followed by simulation activities and finally time in actual machines.

“It is a learning process,” explained Sundly. “There are different layers to education, here.”

A crane simulator gives general understanding of crane operation. However, it doesn’t act exactly like a crane. Therefore, it is important for crane operators to take advantage of the various cranes on site.

“This is above and beyond going through classes and just getting certified,” said Sundly. “Our members get practical experience on equipment.”

Various courses and certifications are offered at the Local 49 Training Center in Hinckley including: OSHA, MSHA, CPR/first aid, HAZMAT, asbestos, confined space, pro 10, IUOE pipeline, crane, blade, large equipment, small equipment, GPS, backhoe, CDL, forklift, grades and stakes.

“In previous classes they would talk about a subject but not get experience until they were on the job,” said Sundly. “Now they can practice here, with the help of instructors. Our members can also cross train for different jobs and on different equipment.”

George boasted, “No other trade has 400 acres to train on like this. They build here — not just simulate but complete a real project.”

Along with day training this facility it is also a CCO certified testing site for crane operators.

“This is a joint partnership with contractors and labor,” said George.

George explained the partnerships with industry and contractors that the Local 49 have built. They also take advantage of the training facility by offering courses and training equipment.

“They help us teach and prepare workers for them,” George said. “Sometimes, they bring their own equipment here, help train the class and then have 30-40 qualified workers to hire. This helps us because they expose our union members to new technology and training.”

Local 49 also conducts joint training with other trade unions, such as carpenters. This also increases the knowledge base and community between members and unions.

These courses, certificates and experience make the 49ers more attractive to employers. Contractors know that although it will cost more to hire union members, they are paying for their quality of education and experience.

“The only way contractors can pay our men and women what they do is because they are highly skilled and productive,” said George. “It is an investment in training and wages, up here. It isn’t always about cheaper when hiring workers. It is about worker quality and ability to do the work.”

Contractors know that hiring Local 49ers is an investment in their project which will result in a better quality product.

“It is about union, skilled workers,” clarified Lislegard, “versus a fly-by-night crew.”

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Cities have a head start

On this sunny autumn day, several city employees from Cottage Grove were taking advantage of training opportunities. One was Quinn Poplar, a city forester in Cottage Grove.

“We are here training on equipment,” Poplar explained. “We were just on the skid steer, moving some dirt and getting stick time. This is stuff we will use at the city. Getting comfortable with this equipment takes time and it is nice that it is a controlled environment, here.”

Tim Loew was the instructor for the Cottage Grove employees while they were at the training center.

“Learning to use this equipment safely takes time,” said Loew. “It can be dangerous for everyone around you if you have never had practical experience.”

Loew said operators and the workers on the ground directing them use numerous hand signals to communicate with each other. A wrong move or misunderstood signal can not only cost time, but risk everyone’s safety.

Taking the opportunity to test out equipment, Lislegard climbed into an excavator. Slowly, the arm and bucket moved this way and that as an instructor crouched in the door of the cab giving directions on which levers to pull or push.

A partially filled scoop turned and poured out dirt before Lislegard tried for a fuller bucket.

“He’s doing pretty good,” commented George as he stood back and watched the dirt fall into a pile.

“Above and beyond going through classes and getting certified,” explained Sundly, “our union members get practical experience.”

Although he was talking about seat-time opportunities at the training center, Sundly’s comment can also be applied to the courses and practice provided at union halls.

There are union halls across the Local 49 jurisdiction of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Minnesota union halls are located in Bagley, Duluth, Mankato, Rochester and Virginia.

Training opportunities are offered at local union halls as well as at the training center. This provides convenience to union members as instructors can travel to them.

For example, at the union hall in Virginia the following classes are periodically offered: CPR and first aid classes along with MSHA, which is required by all mines, and HAZMAT refreshers.

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Jumping into politics

George said the Local 49 has changed a lot of minds politically, specifically on the importance of unions by giving tours and talking with elected officials and community leaders.

He told the story of a state lawmaker that said anyone could do the job of the union workers. The 49ers invited him to the training center in Hinckley, put him a piece of equipment and in detail outlined the OSHA guidelines and other specifics for the trench he would need to dig for a project.

That lawmaker soon realized the union jobs he rallied against were highly-trained positions.

“We focus on bringing Republicans up here to educate them and Democrats for them to understand our importance,” said George. “We’ve had the hardened right-to-work people through here and they all leave saying ‘We didn’t know.’”

George explained that Local 49 is a “different type of union.” They work with contractors and in communities. “Our members live in your community. We have more members in Virginia than in Minneapolis. We are active in mining, logging and pipeline issues because our members live up here, work up here and are proud of it. We are, too.”

George and the 49ers have been active in the debate over local pipeline projects, including Sandpiper and the current Enbridge Line 3. The union often sends members across its reach or into state outside the Local 49 to work on projects. Lately, it’s been more pipelines as the oil boom hit Texas and North Dakota.

“I support you guys wholeheartedly,” said Lislegard. “I am here to help connect the dots, to connect the people, to tell the story, to influence the outcomes. We need to get area mayors, elected official and labor leaders into these classrooms so they, too, can understand the opportunities for our area.”

George said the next steps for the union include reaching a younger generation of operators and explaining the jobs they can have out of school. He said part of that goal will involve working more directly with the schools to increase that exposure.

Lislegard agreed.

“We need to expose our kids to these same opportunities and show them a possible future from which they can choose,” he said. “Unions have a positive history in our area and the unions help support our families. Our kids should get a first-hand look at what a union is and what it can do for them.”

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