A new generation takes the helm at UA 290


Joe Neely (right) was Lou Christian’s rival, then running mate. Now Christian is passing him the torch, and responsibility for a thriving construction union.


United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters (UA) Local 290, one of Oregon’s largest construction unions, has a new top officer. After five years in office, Business Manager Lou Christian retired effective May 31, and under the union’s bylaws, he was succeeded by the assistant business manager, Joe Neely on June 1.

Local 290 represents 5,080 skilled trades members in the western two-thirds of Oregon, three Southwest Washington counties, and Humboldt and Del Norte counties in California. They fabricate, install and maintain piping systems. To ensure they’re the best in the industry, the local operates seven training centers.

Christian’s retirement brings to a close a 44-year union construction career that began when he went to work as a shop boy delivering materials for a general contractor in Eugene. Deciding he wanted to be a steamfitter, he got into the five-year union apprenticeship program in 1978. 

Christian started as a member of Local 41 in Eugene. Just after he was elected to the local executive board, it merged with several other locals to become Local 290 in the mid-’80s.

Work was slow in the early 1980s when Christian became a journeyman, and he had to travel the country working in other locals’ jurisdictions to find work. He once drove 3,500 miles to take a welding test for a job on a nuclear plant. In his first 12 years, he worked for 57 employers, including nine nuclear plants, a refinery, and a space shuttle launch facility.

Christian’s union involvement got a boost when then- Local 290 Business Manager Matt Walters appointed him to the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee. He served three years before winning election to the executive board for Local 290’s southern region. He also won election as vice president. And he served 10 years as president.

In July 2001 Walters offered him a job as full-time business agent. Christian agreed on one condition: He’d work 50 weeks a year, but two weeks a year, he’d be out elk hunting. Christian stayed eight years, and when Business Manager John Endicott retired in 2012, he ran for business manager but lost to Al Shropshire. He ran against Shropshire again in 2015 and in 2018, winning the third time as head of a slate alongside Neely, Dennis Mask, and John Kimberling.

As business manager, Christian bargained journeyman wages that now stand at $54.92 an hour, and negotiated a new paid time off benefit that satisfies Oregon and Washington requirements for paid sick leave. He also helped grow union membership and apprentice enrollment, and supported efforts to build a culture that’s more welcoming to women and minority members. Having accomplished much of what he set out to do, he’s retiring at age 65. 

His advice to union members: “If you’re in your union, be involved.”

“Our local, the way we deal with things, is very democratic,” Christian said. “We vote on everything. The membership, they’re involved.”

Next generation

Neely will serve as business manager at least until the next officer election in January 2024. He’s a third generation union pipefitter: His grandfather and father were members, and even his mother joined, five years before he became a member in 2000. 

Neely has amassed a considerable collection of union pins, each one signifying a local somewhere in the United States or Canada of the United Association of The United Association of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry.

Neely didn’t join right after attending Hillsboro High School. Instead he lived the life of a skateboarder and bass guitarist in a rock n roll band. Then he got married and became stepdad to a 4-year-old boy. It was time to get serious about a career.

“I had known through growing up with my grandpa and my dad and my mom that if you want a career, to take care of your family, then you do that through the UA or through a union job,” Neely told the Labor Press. “It was a big mindset change for me personally. It was no longer just that I need to show up so that I can get paid. Now I need to show up because I’ve got people that are counting on me on the job site, at my house, everywhere.”

Neely’s initiation into the union made a big impression. 

“I stood up in front of a whole membership of people nervously, gave my name and classification, and was welcomed in by everybody there.” Then he sat down next to his dad and overheard business manager Walters lean over to ask a fellow officer if that was “Terry’s kid.”

“Something about that moment made me realize that I wasn’t just some number out in the crowd, that I was actually part of that brotherhood.”

Neely became an active union member and worked for a time as an instructor at the training center. Then in 2015, after he told his wife he wasn’t sure if he could support Christian or Shropshire for business manager, his wife said maybe he should run for business manager himself. He did … and came in a distant third. But Christian, the second place finisher, approached him when the two were serving as delegates to the 2016 international convention in San Diego, and they got to know each other.

“We saw we had a lot of the same perceptions about the way things should be done,” Christian recalls. When Christian ran again in 2018, Neely supported him and was appointed business agent and then in May 2019, assistant business manager. 

Now, at age 44, he’s charged with promoting and defending the interests of 5,000 members.

“It’s been an honor to serve union membership, and I look forward to continuing that,” Neely said.


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