Craig Olson – Climbing the Blue Collar Ladder


Craig Olson – Climbing the Blue Collar Ladder

It’s not surprising that the building and construction trades have ladders to climb. But many folks think the career ladder is reserved for white collar corporate jobs. Craig Olson’s career path tells a different story.

While he admittedly didn’t have the whereabouts to go to college, Craig certainly had the work ethic to build a career for himself. What started in a lumberyard in high school and the auto department of Montgomery Wards after graduation has turned into nearly 40 years with the painter’s international union in Duluth.

Craig apprenticed with Local 106, meaning his three years of training and education were paid for by union member funds (not tax dollars). From there, he spent 12 years with the tools, working as a painter and a drywall finisher before he climbed to the next rung on the ladder, serving first as trustee and then as the financial secretary for the local.

His experiences as an officer inspired him to run for his local’s top job – business manager – which he has held since 1991. In this role, he represents the local and its members in negotiations and grievances, and oversees membership engagement and operations.

With exemplary work representing his local’s members and forging critical relationships with the area’s private companies and contractors, Craig was elected president of the Duluth Building Trades Council in 1997. In this volunteer role, Craig serves as the spokesperson for the 16 area building and construction trade unions, representing their collective interests at press conferences, with local government or school districts, securing Project Labor Agreements, and generally ensuring that projects will be built with highly trained union workers.

Then, in 2000, when the state’s eight local painters’ unions merged into one more efficient district council, Craig was elected president. To date, he’s the only person to have held this volunteer position.

And finally, most recently in 2013, he climbed the ladder to the Minnesota State Building Trades, where he serves as secretary treasurer. Together with the state’s other building trades, Craig helps promote and grow the trades, advance their apprentice programs, promote safe working conditions, and negotiate labor agreements.

While the construction work is paramount, the charitable acts his local and members participate in are central to the mission of a building and construction trade union. Specifically, Craig enjoys providing painting services to local services agencies like homeless shelters and Goodwill, serving area veterans like through the construction of the Veteran’s Memorial on the lakefront, and partnering with the Duluth Police Department to beautify blighted neighborhoods.

In case you missed a rung, Craig has climbed from painter to business representative of his local union, with leadership roles at the district and statewide level. Oh, and he’s also a licensed vocational instructor. Quite the career trajectory!

But it’s what he has done outside of the work – the life that the work has afforded him – that he’s proudest of. Craig is a father of three and grandfather of six, a snowmobile safety course instructor, and president of his local snowmobile club. Two of his kids also work in the trades – Christy is a journey worker with his Local 106 and his son Chad is a steel worker, having also spent time in Local 106 as a painter, drywall finisher and glazier for 10 years before moving on to US Steel.

When Craig is not working, volunteering, or family rearing, Craig’s boating and fishing at his cabin on Lake Vermillion.

So what does a guy with a lot of experience and accomplishment behind him hope for the future, specifically the future of trade unions?

“There are a lot of options for young people these days, and the trades are a great place to look. We’re constantly innovating, we’re offering opportunities. And we’re working hard to show everyone that they could have a place in the trades, particularly women and people of color and folks who might not see themselves in this work.”

“But most of all, I hope that people see the pride we have in our work. I drive across the Bond Bridge every day, a bridge I helped construct, and there just isn’t a prouder feeling.”