For many Americans, Labor Day Weekend is an opportunity for one last backyard barbecue before the unofficial end of summer.
Members of the labor movement, however, understand that the holiday means so much more. When legislatures first began recognizing the Labor Day holiday in the late nineteenth century, it was to acknowledge the enormous impact workers had on the country’s prosperity and well-being. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday, and we’ve celebrated workers on the first Monday of September ever since.
In honor of Labor Day 2020, we’re profiling Mark A. Keire, a former Columbia Steel employee and the current Financial Secretary-Treasurer and Business Manager for the United Steelworkers Local 139B, which represents many Columbia Steel workers. Over 30 years, Mark worked every shift in every production department from one side of the Columbia Steel campus to the other before moving into labor leadership full time.
His years spent on the foundry floor and helping to develop union policy give him a unique perspective on the relationship between business and labor. As Mark tells it, union membership allowed a crazy kid to enter an industry that he had no experience in, build a career and access the American dream.
Decades of Labor Leadership
A Pacific Northwest native and the son of two teachers, both active union members, Mark was steeped in the labor movement from an early age. Mark walked into Columbia Steel on August 8th, 1988 — with no foundry experience — and into a pouring helper job that paid $5.17 per hour. After just a few months on the job, Mark became a shop steward after an exiting union member asked him to take on the role. It’s here where Mark got his first experience in labor leadership as he managed disagreements and contract questions between union members and supervisors.
Mark remained a shop steward for years as he advanced in his career at Columbia Steel, thanks to the promotional opportunity program put together by the company’s collaboration with the union. Wanting to influence the union’s direction, Mark was eventually elected Vice-President of the local’s executive board. Before long, Mark took over as President and held the position for ten years while still working full time at Columbia Steel. In 2018, members elected Mark to his current position with United Steelworkers Local 139B, representing foundry workers at Columbia Steel and three other Pacific Northwest shops.
The Role of Labor in Industry
After spending so many years working in the labor movement, Mark strongly believes that unions and companies exist in mutually beneficial relationships. The union needs the company to be profitable so it can pay wages and benefits to union members. In turn, the company needs well-compensated and well-trained union members to make their products and better service their customers.
Companies are profitable when they produce high-quality products that are made right the first time. So, in addition to negotiating for wages and benefits, Mark sees his role as improving the manufacturing process, so workers have the equipment, training and safety measures they need to make the best products possible. Through advocating for his members, Mark believes he’s also benefiting the company and its customers.
While Mark is quick to protect his members when there is a disagreement with the interpretation of the contract or company actions that affect the membership, he credits Columbia Steel for managing the company’s relationship with the union contract honestly and fairly. He expects this relationship to continue its productive nature long into the future, because the discussion surrounding wages, health insurance, safety and training will always be ongoing as we all work toward better futures.
Take a Moment to Remember
Mark’s career in manufacturing and the labor movement, is a tremendous example of what Labor Day means for working Americans. Because of a union contract, Mark started at Columbia Steel with no experience and was able to move up through the ranks and learn every aspect of the foundry industry.
The stability those jobs provided allowed Mark to buy a home, purchase vehicles and put food on the plates of his three children. Mark believes that union membership has blessed his life immeasurably — allowing him to realize the promise of the American dream. Now he’s working to extend those same benefits to his union brothers and sisters.
So this year during the holiday, take a moment to remember the American Labor Movement and the benefits it has extended to every part of our daily lives.