By DON McINTOSH
It was October 2019 in Western Texas, and all Maurice Mayes could see was dust. As a journeyman operating engineer, Mayes was a skilled operator of heavy construction equipment. He was also a union steward, used to sticking up for others in Operating Engineers Local 701. But in 2018 he’d left the Portland area to follow pipeline jobs around the country. Now, operating a side boom pipe layer without an enclosed cab, dust was all he could see or breathe. Imagine a moving line of tracked vehicles digging and laying pipe in an 80-mile-long trench in an arid area, every one of them throwing up fine dust.
After close to four months of this, Mayes started to feel not very good. He was hard headed, he later admitted, and not one to pay attention to a little discomfort.
“I initially thought it was a sinus infection, so I started taking sinus medication,” Hayes said. “Working every day, still showing up to work, I had constant fevers, sweating. I must have lost 15 pounds. My appetite was gone.”
“Then it got more intense,” Mayes said. “My lungs had high pressure on them. It hurt to take deep breaths.”
When the project ended Oct. 18, 2019, Mayes drove back home to Battle Ground, Washington, saw a doctor, and got X-rays. The diagnosis: dust pneumonia, a serious lung infection that develops because of excessive exposure to dust. Not long after recovering at home with his wife and then-eight-year-old daughter, he got a momentous phone call from a fellow Local 701 member, Titus White.
Mayes and White had met in 2016 in a 10-hour OSHA safety training class offered by the union, and over the next few years bonded over a shared enthusiasm for the long hours, travel, and high pay of pipeline work. The two sought out every training opportunity they could find, traveling to union training centers in Nevada, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, to learn how to operate specialty equipment like pipe carriers, side boom dozers, and rock drills. Then from 2018 to 2020 they each hit the road, becoming “travelers” in construction union parlance.
Luck, and persistence
White had grown up in Baltimore, moved to Portland in 2002, and joined Local 701 in 2006 at age 32—after an epiphany on the road to the Oregon coast.
Back then, he’d been driving a forklift for $9 an hour for three years, and at a high-turnover nonunion warehouse, that made him senior hand.
“The boss comes up to me one day,” White recalls. “He said, ‘Come over here, man. You’re doing a great job. We’re going to give you a raise.’ I said, ‘Man, this is the moment I’ve been looking for!’”
The raise was … 25 cents. White took it as a total slap in the face. He turned around and walked out.
To clear his head, White took his girlfriend and her son to the Oregon coast. Passing road construction on the way, he noticed excavators, rollers, and other heavy equipment, and thought to himself: “If I can operate a forklift, I can operate those.” Back home he started cold calling construction companies, going down the phone book for days, asking if they had any job openings “driving” heavy equipment (the industry-preferred term is “operating.”) Someone he called, he doesn’t remember who, gave him the number to the Operating Engineers Local 701 apprenticeship program. He applied. He got in. It changed his life. It meant state of the art training—for free— and earning a union apprentice wage while learning on the job.
“You shoulda’ saw my eyes when I saw my first paycheck,” White says.
Like White, Mayes too had a relentless work ethic, and had his own lucky break to get into the union. Having moved to Portland after growing up in Santa Barbara, Mayes taught himself to drive a truck and got a CDL without ever paying tuition to a trucking school. In 2013, he was operating a dump truck for minority-owned Raimore Construction when he met Local 701 member Doug Mitchell. Raimore was then nonunion except for operating engineers, and that day Mitchell was loading Mayes’ truck with excavated soil, rock, and pavement material.
“He came out of his equipment to speak with me and tell me about the union, and then and there changed my life,” Mayes recalls. “He said, ‘Call the hall. They’re looking for apprentices.”
Taking the leap
But back to that momentous phone call. In March 2020, a microscopic crown-shaped virus called COVID-19 had triggered a global pandemic. It also shut down the pipeline job in Killeen, Texas, that White was on. Now White phoned Mayes with a proposal: How about the two of them buy a couple of water tanker trucks and go into business for themselves as minority contractors delivering water to combat wildfires for the U.S. government?
Mayes countered with an even better plan: The trucks could also be used to save construction workers from what he’d just suffered in Texas, wetting down dust to keep it from becoming airborne. Suppressing dust on construction sites is actually required by OSHA, but as Mayes had seen, enforcement can be spotty at best.
So in April 2020, the two went into business together, using the savings from all that lucrative pipeline work. They named it Pro Eagle Trucking. White says the eagle is his spirit animal—he identifies with its strength and persistence.
Headquarters is an office space at Mayes’ home in Battle Ground. Mayes is the president, and focuses on winning business. White is the CEO and operations manager, and focuses on getting the jobs done.
They started April 2020 with two 4,000 gallon water trucks. Two years later, they have four, and can lease up to five more as needed. The trucks have front and back sprayers and side cannons, all operated from within the cab. They also use a product called “gorilla snot” which when mixed with water and sprayed, creates a crust that helps stablize soil and prevent dust.
The trucks have nicknames. There’s The Bird, Big Bird, Boss Bird. But at about $100,000 each, those are expensive pieces of capital equipment, and they need to keep them in operation. And that’s a challenge with work that’s very seasonal. Forest fire season runs July to October. White says dust suppression is a matter of heat and dryness. In colder weather, the ground holds its moisture.
In the summer, it’s “go, go, go,” White says. But in the winter, construction slows, and there’s less need for water trucks for dust suppression during the rainy and snowy winter months.
Their first job was for Goodfellow Bros. and Mortenson on the Golden Hills Wind Project in the eastern Columbia Gorge. Dust suppression is a significant challenge for renewable energy projects in arid and windy eastern Oregon.
“Any time they open up those cuts and 1,800 acres of dirt to put pads for wind or solar, it’s just nothing but dust tornadoes,” White says.
Pro Eagle’s water trucks helped keep the project’s access roads dust free, and were also used for soil stabilization and compaction: Loaded water trucks can weigh 50,000 pounds—so they’re used to roll over filled-in trenches laid with electric cable.
Mayes got Pro Eagle certified as a minority owned business by federal government and by Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Arizona. He also got Pro Eagle certified as contractor for the U.S. Forestry Service and for the State of Washington Department of Natural Resources, where they got “red card” qualification, training in how to work safely in wild fire. They’re ready to roll.
On March 1, 2021, they signed an agreement with Local 701, becoming what they think may be the first unionized water truck company.
And one of Pro Eagle’s biggest fans is Local 701 business manager Jim Anderson.
“Wherever he went, [Maurice Mayes] has just done a great job,” Anderson said. “He’s been a steward on jobs, and worked out at Intel. Then when he wanted to start this company, they came in, sat down with us. He was like, ‘The union’s been good to me. I could never think about being nonunion.’ They’re just rocking it, him and his partner Titus.”
As employers, they’re now bringing workers into the union, six last year. White says finds that part of being a contractor especially rewarding: “to see those guys when they go from making 30 bucks an hour to $48, and the look on heir faces, and working 72 hours a week.”
Though their work wardrobe now includes business suits, they still get their hands dirty. When a truck is idle Mayes will put on overalls, grease them up, and apply a coat of Armor All. And the company is still small enough that they can start off a project performing the labor themselves.
“But as it grows, there’s no way that we can sit behind the wheel and conduct a business,” White says. “So that’s when we get the members out of the hall.”
From the union perspective, Pro Eagle is helping break into a new niche that up to now has been nonunion.
Mayes says his proudest moment so far was at Local 701’s semi annual meeting. Union officers told members what Mayes and White had done: Pro Eagle was able to employ nine operating engineers its first season, basically feeding the families of each of those individuals.
“There was significant applause,” Mayes recalls. “A lot of people came and thanked me for my efforts, doing what I do to protect workers.”