Leadership changes, but Trades’ focus remains on building careers, communities

The Crow Wing County VFW color guard installs the colors at the start of the Building Trades convention.

A new president gaveled the 75th convention of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council to order at Madden’s on Gull Lake today, as delegates unanimously affirmed their Executive Board in electing Laborers Local 563 Business Manager Joe Fowler to lead the statewide organization.  

President Emeritus Harry Melander, who retired in June after 12 years leading the council, administered the oath of office to Fowler and other executive officers as one of the convention’s first orders of business. 

“I will give it my all to advocate the just cause of organized construction labor in the state of Minnesota,” Fowler said, thanking delegates for their support.  

While the leadership of the organization has changed – it’s the first convention for newly hired Executive Director Tom Dicklich, too – the Building Trades Council’s work remains focused on fostering family-sustaining, high-quality job opportunities for tradespeople across the state. 

In practice, Fowler said, that means recruiting new workers – particularly veterans and workers from underrepresented communities – into unions’ registered apprenticeship programs to keep up with the industry’s demand for skilled labor. It means organizing to end mistreatment of workers on non-union construction sites, where wage theft, employee misclassification and labor trafficking are too common. And it means opposing right-to-work laws and attacks on prevailing wage at the Capitol. 

Gov. Tim Walz greets delegates to the convention.

By most of those measures, Minnesota’s Building Trades unions have fared better than their counterparts in other Midwest states, and Fowler said the reason for that is unity. 

“Sticking together and showing solidarity is what sets us apart from other organizations that would like to see us and organized labor as a whole fail, and that will never happen,” he said. “If we do not have solidarity, we do not have a strong Building Trades, and in Minnesota that is just not an option.” 

The Trades have worked in recent years to attract bipartisan support for their agenda at the State Capitol, and that support was on display in the string of guest speakers who lined up to take the podium today. Mayors, state legislators, agency commissioners, members of Congress and Gov. Tim Walz all touted their work in support of union tradespeople. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican whose district includes the Gull Lake area, told delegates his caucus, unlike Republicans in states like Wisconsin, won’t advance measures to undermine collective bargaining or attack prevailing wage. 

“Times are changing,” Gazelka said. “We’re the ones that are fighting for the mining jobs, whether it’s copper-nickel or taconite mining. We’re the ones standing up for the pipelines.” 

But Walz warned against politicians who frame a “false choice” when it comes to energy policy and mining. He said his administration is determined not to “cut corners,” but has moved projects like the Polymet mine through the permitting and review processes quickly. It is Senate Republicans’ move to force out his head of the state’s Pollution Control Agency, Walz said, that has slowed that process down. 

Joe Fowler, business manager of Laborers Local 563, is the new president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council.

“They’re playing games with your jobs,” Walz said. “They’re playing games with a process that now works. This isn’t about me picking winners or losers, it’s about following the science, following the law and following the process.  

“We did all those things. And we’re a long ways down that process on the Polymet mine, but it’s pretty damn hard to go back to an agency when that commissioner is no longer there.” 

DFL lawmakers also called out Republicans for bailing on the Building Trades-backed refinery safety measure during the special session last month.  

The measure, which would have required skilled laborers at sensitive petroleum facilities complete a registered apprenticeship program, gained steam after Marathon replaced local, union contractors at its St. Paul Park refinery with workers from out-of-state, non-union contractors. It passed the DFL-controlled House but was stripped from the Senate jobs bill after more than a dozen Republicans who originally voted to advance the measure withdrew their support. 

Rep. Rob Ecklund, a DFLer from International Falls, said the vote revealed who is “standing with labor not just when it’s politically convenient, but all of the time.” 

A diplomatic Fowler sought to cool the political rhetoric, insisting the council, under his leadership, “will always be nonpartisan in the sense that we support those who support us and who understand labor is always on the side of the worker.” 

There were some issues on which everyone in the room could agree, including a renewed state investment in Helmets to Hardhats, which has successfully introduced thousands of military veterans to career opportunities in the union trades. Justin Ross, a former Marine who heads the statewide initiative, said 840 Minnesota veterans have enrolled in unions’ apprenticeship programs over the last three years after accessing the program.

President Emeritus Harry Melander (L) congratulates Secretary Treasurer Craig Olson after swearing in the officers.

“I know firsthand what it can be like returning from military service,” Ross said. “I spent over five years bouncing from job to job, trying college a couple times. It wasn’t until I found my way into an apprenticeship program with Sheet Metal Workers Local 10 that I really found a home.” 

Another point of universal agreement: appreciation for Melander’s leadership during the 12 years he served as president of the council. Walz presented the president emeritus with a plaque declaring today Harry Melander Day in Minnesota. 

In characteristically brief remarks, Melander assured delegates their organization is in good hands, and left them with a few words of wisdom. 

“Teach the trade; honor the craft,” he said. “Just remember that. Teach the trade to the young people, and honor the craft amongst ourselves. And thank you for the privilege of serving the last 12 years.” 

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