By Tracy Kalytiak
Back in 1897, the American Federation of Labor noted the growing strength of the operating engineers and chartered the International Union in the American Federation of Labor, with the official title being “International Union of Steam Engineers,” chosen because most of the members were engaged in operating the latest equipment of that day — steam-driven implements.
As word of the new union spread, 29 applicants in the city of Seattle applied for and received a charter, obtaining it in 1905. The Seattle branch of the new union was Local 302, and its jurisdiction was the city of Seattle.
Over the next 30 years, Local 302 expanded its jurisdiction and scope of work to include all aspects of operating engineer work. In 1939, when work began on naval bases in Sitka, Dutch Harbor and Kodiak, Local 302 successfully wrote an agreement covering work in Alaska Territory. The timing of this agreement ensured Local 302 members performed the work associated with the World War II efforts and, later, with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Fast forward to today, Local 302’s jurisdiction is geographically the largest of any of the other operating engineer chapters and includes Alaska, Idaho and most of Washington. Local 302 has a membership of some 11,000 skilled operating engineers, with offices throughout its jurisdiction and training centers in Palmer (as well as in Kittitas and Spangle, Washington). These training centers hone the skills of Local 302’s journey-level operators and train its newly recruited apprentices.
“Yearly, we receive over 2,000 applicants for entry into our apprenticeship programs and deploy hundreds of new members to jobsites in all three states,” said Josh Swanson, Local 302’s director of labor research and communications.
Swanson says Local 302 negotiates, works with and partners with the AGC chapters in its jurisdiction. “They hold seats on our training, pension and healthcare trusts,” Swanson said. “Our training trusts ensure we are investing in the best means and methods for training members to be the most skilled and competent operators in the field. Our pension and healthcare trusts ensure our members have a competitive compensation package to enhance recruitment efforts and to ensure longevity in the field.”
Local 302 also frequently partners with the AGC of Alaska for political advocacy to ensure new construction and job creation is a top priority for legislative funding and that any impediments or barriers to getting projects underway are dealt with aggressively and appropriately.
“The AGC is a proven partner,” Swanson said. “We recognize that if their affiliate contractors aren’t working, then our members aren’t working, so we have a mutually beneficial motivation to collaborate toward the same goal: getting more work.”
Collaborating for positive changes
Tony Johansen has worked with IUOE Local 302 for decades.
Johansen has been an owner of Great Northwest Inc. in Fairbanks since 2000. Before then, he worked with H&H Contractors and the Alaska Department of Highways (now the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities). He earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Alaska and a master’s degree in construction engineering and management at Stanford University.
“I’ve become very familiar with (Local 302) in my role as a management trustee for the Alaska Operating Engineers/Employers Training Trust,” Johansen said, referring to the Palmer-based facility that trains Alaska workers in the skills necessary to enter the construction industry as a heavy-equipment operator; trains apprentices; and connects apprentices with contractors.
Johansen says working with the IUOE Local 302 has been a positive experience.
“In negotiations, I’ve always found they negotiate in good faith,” he said. “I don’t always see eye to eye with them in regard to contract language, nor do we always agree on compensation packages, but we always reach a negotiated position acceptable to both parties.”
The Local 302 cares for its employees yet also nurtures its relationships with the Alaska community of contractors, he added, and it partners with contractors to accomplish mutually beneficial goals.
“They work hand in hand with us to solve problems, to help get legislation passed that benefits the construction industry,” Johansen said. “They don’t stand back and say, ‘You’re the contractor; we don’t work with you.’ If it has to do with legislation, statutes or regulations that benefit the industry, we work together.”
Tracy Kalytiak is a freelance writer based in Palmer.