Members elect new leadership at UA 290


In votes tallied Dec. 18, members of United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 290 elected Paul Elder to a three-year term as business manager, the local’s top office.

Chess player, Eagle Scout, and father of four sons, Paul Elder is a lifelong member of Local 290, which he’s served as a benefit trustee, bargaining team participant, and instructor teaching crane signaling and rigging.

Elder was one of four challengers to incumbent business manager Joe Neely, who was appointed in June 2023 upon the retirement of Lou Christian. Elder got 505 votes; Neely got 473; David Anderson got 132; Justin Shropshire got 131; and Greg Coarkin got 23.

Local 290 is one of the region’s biggest unions, representing more than 5,000 plumbers, pipefitters, and HVAC specialists in Oregon, Southwest Washington, and Northern California.

Elder, 48, takes office this month with no doubt about his focus. He’s passionate about improving member benefits, particularly retirement and health insurance benefits. Union benefits were the reason he joined Local 290, and the reason he got involved.

Elder grew up in Lebanon, Oregon, and worked summers picking berries and doing farm jobs on mink and hog farms. After graduating high school, a career in welding appealed to him, and he faced a choice: a full-ride scholarship to study welding engineering at Ricks College in Idaho, or an apprenticeship with Local 290, which would also involve welding.

“The engineers that were coming out at that time made about the same in wages, but their benefits weren’t near as good as the union’s,” Elder said.

When Local 290 accepted his application in 1996, he joined the union and learned everything he could. He started attending union meetings, even though at the time apprentices didn’t have the right to vote or even speak.

As an apprentice, he learned plumbing, then pipefitting. He became a journeyman in 2001 and passed the test to get a pressure vessel license. His skills took him to paper mills, Hewlett Packard, and eventually to Intel, where he spent much of the last 20 years involved in the construction of semiconductor manufacturing facilities, most recently as a direct employee of general contractor JE Dunn.

As a journeyman, when Elder learned that the union health trust was going to increase the number of work hours that members would need to qualify for benefits, he got up to the mic at a union meeting and denounced the change, sparking an hours-long uproar.

“I don’t think the membership understands how important they are in a union,” Elder says. “It’s really easy to become discouraged. You go to meetings, you’re not happy with something, and it’s like, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ But that’s the worst thing to have happen. The strength of the union, of any union, is in its membership.”

Times were tough for the local in the 2000s, and its benefit funds were reducing benefits.  A low point was the collapse of Capital Consultants, in what proved to be the largest pension fraud in U.S. history up to that point. Local 290 benefit funds had $159 million invested with Capital Consultants and lost more than $75 million of it.

“I had people that taught me the trade who lost a tremendous amount of retirement savings,” Elder recalls. “It was painful. It was sad to see.”

Older members that he knew had to delay retirement by years, working even as their health worsened.

Elder started talking with other members about the benefit problems and speaking up at meetings. Eventually then- business manager Al Shropshire appointed Elder to the union-sponsored 401(k) retirement savings trust.

“My mom and dad always said that if you don’t like something, you need to get involved, or else you can’t complain about it,” Elder said.

Serving on the trust was an eye-opener. The Capital Consultants disaster was traumatic for benefit trustees, and they learned from it. Elder attended intensive three-day annual trainings for benefit trustees.

“Our local has some of the largest funds in the region,” Elder said. “And if you make a bad decision, it affects membership adversely for years to come, generations even.”

Elder also began attending contract bargaining sessions. Local 290 has a somewhat unusual policy in that any member can take part in bargaining so long as they commit to going to all the sessions. Elder made that commitment, learned a lot, and ended up attending five rounds of bargaining over the years. He became a fan of Local 290’s decision to bring in superstar mediator Richard Barnes — former head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service — to oversee a less adversarial kind of bargaining.

“It’s been amazing,” Elder said. “We learned how to negotiate without being unreasonable.” Elder says the process has led to better contracts, and better relationships between the union and its contractor group.

In 2020 and 2021, he challenged incumbent business manager Lou Christian and lost narrowly. Now as business manager, he’ll have greater sway to pursue his agenda of strengthening benefits. Elder said he wants to build the Local 290 pension up to level it’s never been before, with the help of contractors. He also wants to reverse a decision made by pension trustees to lower the assumed rate of return of investments. The math is complicated, but basically if trustees believe investments are going to produce lower returns, it follows that they have to reduce the rate that pension benefits accrue. Elder thinks the rate was cut too much and is overly pessimistic.

Also elected besides Elder were members of the Executive Board, Examining Board, and other officers, including:

  • President Marie Foote
  • Vice president Brad Archuleta
  • Inside guard Denny Tynan
  • Recording secretary Irais Gandarilla (unopposed)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Read more