The Electrical Worker online
March 2013

IBEW Helps Build World's Largest
Yogurt Plant in Idaho
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Chobani Greek-style yogurt came out of nowhere five years ago and blew the bigger brands off the shelves. Founded by Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant from a dairy-farming family, Chobani is a classic entrepreneurial success story, one that started in upstate New York and gathered a commanding market force that couldn't be denied or contained.

Last November, the Chobani story's next chapter was celebrated with the grand opening of a new plant in Twins Falls, Idaho. The 955,000-square-foot facility is the largest yogurt plant in the world, processing 11 million pounds of milk a day and 12 million cases of yogurt a week. It is estimated that nearby dairy farms will need to add 70,000 cows to produce enough milk to keep the plant producing.

If those numbers are hard to fathom, so is the fact that the entire $450 million plant was up and running 10 months after groundbreaking, with no small credit going to 400 electricians working for five signatory contractors who didn't only work long hours running miles of conduit and cable tray, but redesigned massive equipment manufactured elsewhere to meet U.S. standards.

"Every IBEW man or woman who worked on this project should stand proudly with their heads held high," says Pat Bristol, general foreman for Shambaugh and Son, a signatory design/ build firm and subsidiary of EMCOR.

"They worked diligently, sometimes six and seven days a week to accomplish a quality job in record time," says the 14-year member of Pocatello Local 449. The plant is expected to employ 400 workers and have an economic impact to the region of more than $1 billion.

Local 449 Business Manager Rodney James says before the Chobani project kicked off, local union members who were fortunate enough to stay working through the recession were spread across Idaho and south to Salt Lake City. Dispatching enough hands to the job was the first challenge, not made any easier by the local's steep wage scale differential between Idaho's eastern and western counties.

Wages are $4-per-hour higher and benefits 50 percent greater in the eastern counties than in the western quadrant where Chobani broke ground. Local 449 negotiated to increase wages $4-per-hour and won double-time for overtime hours, attracting travelers from Las Vegas and other jurisdictions.

Contributing to the success in boosting wages and building a stable work force available for the duration of the project, James tapped the market recovery agreement, supplementing journeymen and apprentices with 28 construction electricians and construction wiremen.

Using alternate job classifications, says James, "didn't look like it would be real popular at the beginning, but [with a huge new project] it was an opportunity to organize." He says rank and file members accepted the program after seeing increases in their paychecks as many of the new hires exhibited their skills on the job. Six CEs promoted to journeyman wiremen after three months in the field. Eight CWs became indentured apprentices in 2012.

Chris Lochridge, a Local 449 shop steward who is still working at Chobani on punch-list jobs and installing an ongoing stream of new equipment says, "We had a load of travelers from Boise, Washington, Montana and other places. We were all IBEW, we had a job to do and we got it done."

While many of his local union co-workers had worked on everything from residential wiring to nuclear power plant construction, the 19-year member says some of the travelers had scant experience working with rigid pipe and other features. "We worked together to get guys on track," he says. "We need to thank the travelers for stepping up," says Bristol.

To power the facility, contractors needed to bring in 20 megawatts of additional power from Idaho Power. Chobani is weighing plans to build a power plant on the premises.

While Lochridge and Bristol had worked on other major projects like the advanced waste treatment plant for low-level nuclear wastes at the sprawling Idaho National Laboratories, they see more promise in expanding the local's market share through a growing relationship between signatory contractors, members and Chobani. Forty to 50 members are still at work at the new plant and Chobani is already discussing expanding the cold warehouse and adding a new plant to produce cheese.

"My compliments go out to Business Manager Rodney James, members of Local 449 and supporting travelers for using Code of Excellence principles and alternate classifications to bring the Chobani project in under budget and on time," says Eighth District International Vice President Ted Jensen.

"Sometimes it looks like the whole country is against unions, but the immensity of this job and the quality of our work shows that we're not the bad guys," says Bristol. When folks dip into their favorite Chobani flavor, he says, they should understand that the yogurt wouldn't be on their tables without the IBEW members and other building trades who worked so hard and skillfully to make the new plant a showcase of quality American construction.


Four hundred electricians worked long hours to construct the 955,000-square-foot Chobani yogurt plant in Twins Falls, Idaho, in just 10 months.