Field Coordinator Mike Mitchell, who has been with AAM since our founding, retired last week.
Mike Mitchell is a Man of Steel.
He may not possess the powers of Superman, but he is certainly a proponent of steelworkers and others facing tough times because of the loss of American manufacturing jobs.
For nearly 10 years, Mitchell served as the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) Indiana field coordinator, dedicating his life to the steel industry and the United Steelworkers (USW). Mitchell retired on Thursday, moving on to what he calls a “new chapter” in his life at age 60.
“Indiana is home to a lot of steelworkers, as well as those retired and active in our companies, and key lawmakers. So having Mike represent us there was really important to our success. No doubt about it," said AAM President Scott Paul. “I think just on a personal level, I have an incredible amount of admiration for Mike. His ability to both step out of his comfort zone, be incredibly grateful and have that same kind of agitation at the same time is a really rare quality and what is a true leader.”
Mitchell’s steel career came about the hard way, learning new talents along the journey and overcoming fears to become invaluable to Indiana, the largest steel-producing state in the country.
After a humble childhood in the area of Oxford, Miss., Mitchell moved with his family to Gary, Ind., when he was 15. Gary was home to U.S. Steel’s largest steel mill, known as Gary Works.
He had two sets of grandparents and great-grandparents who were farmers in Mississippi. There weren’t any manufacturing plants in Mississippi, so the move to Indiana might have been a quest for a better way of life.
Mitchell jumped right into the fire.
“Being in a family of nine kids and being poor, you never had anything new or that worked, so I developed a skill of repairing things like the oven and washing machine," Mitchell recalled.
“I had an uncle that worked at U.S. Steel and I started putting in applications for different steel mills and factories. I applied for an apprenticeship at U.S. Steel, but then I worked as a janitor until they called me at U.S. Steel. It was an apprenticeship. I was a four-year course where you went to school... and also worked on the job at the same time.
“I finally became a journeyman. I loved what I did as a maintenance person. You were called to fix something when it was down. It was an emotional high to go out and fix something."
Mitchell spent 30 years working at Gary Works, known as U.S. Steel’s flagship plant.
But Mitchell held a different job for the first 10 years he was employed at U.S. Steel. The American steel industry was facing struggles, and Mitchell repeatedly faced layoffs during his first 10-year tenure.
“My first layoff was in 1979, and I did not work a full year until 1988," Mitchell said. “I kept getting laid off. At one point, I was laid off 18 months and I came back to U.S. Steel... and I continued to work without getting laid off until 2006 when I retired.”
During his final five years at Gary Works, Mitchell became involved in the USW. He went from being an assistant griever to chairman of the civil rights committee before ascending to local 1014 vice president and eventually president.
Mitchell’s acquired union skills and volunteer work prepared him well for his new role at AAM in 2007.
“It was something I had to work at," Mitchell said. "I didn’t consider myself a speaker. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing. I couldn’t shake the nervousness of getting up there. I credit AAM with providing me the tools and training to get past those points. It was a whole new work experience under the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Meeting different legislators and community leaders that make decisions that could impact our economy.”
AAM President Scott Paul added to Mitchell’s learning curve in the steel industry.
“I would say one of the things I admired about Mike right away is that he is a hard worker, he is an eager learner, he is a consummate networker and he does not hesitate to provide feedback or questions when he needs it,” Paul said. “One of the things I will miss about Mike is you can count on him to ask a question about something one of us missed. That would be a hole to fill and that was something I counted on. To think of something, I hadn’t thought of.
“Mike is a quiet, humble man of deep integrity. But I also have had the opportunity to see Mike present and Mike is dynamic, effective and persuasive. Mike developed good relationships with the key folks in Indiana and the other states which he represented for AAM. From the level of elected officials all the way to our retiree activists. He really kept in touch and engaged.”
Mitchell was always well-prepared and worked tirelessly for AAM in preparation for his many roles at conferences which included a far range of duties – from working booths to promote Made in America to organizing town hall meetings to giving speeches about the importance of American-made steel.
He was also beloved by his colleagues, and worked closely with AAM Ohio field coordinator Ken Poweski and Meghan Hasse, the AAM field coordinator based in Madison, Wis., who covers the Badger State and Michigan. Hasse travels frequently to Michigan and often would stop in Gary to have lunch or pick Mitchell up so he could come to Michigan to help out.
“I probably worked closer with Mike than anyone else because of our location,” Hasse said. “He’s just been a really great person to work with. He’s been very reliable and taught me a lot. He was an inspiration to work with. We’ll certainly miss him. If he sensed you needed any help on any project, he got in his car and would go out to help even if you were far away. He was so reliable; you could always count on him. Mike always went far above and beyond. I still feel he will be showing up at events because he enjoyed this tremendously.”
The next chapter of Mitchell’s life will keep him active in Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) projects and volunteer work that has been a big part of his life.
“I found out that from travelling that my life was not so different from other kids,” Mitchell said. “I hesitate to use the word success, because success can mean different things to different people. They are a long way from where they grew up.
“I’m just going to let it come to me,” Mitchell added. “The only thing I am halfway planning now is to try and do a summer vacation with my grandkids and my wife Esther when they get their summer break out of school. They are getting up in age and I think it’s going to get harder and harder to put them together. That’s the only thing I have planned, other than that I haven’t made any more plans past breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Mitchell’s final major project for AAM saw him leading a campaign asking United Technologies, the parent company of HVAC manufacturer Carrier Corp., to reconsider 2,100 layoffs in his home state of Indiana. Mitchell sent several emails to AAM supporters asking for support, met with elected officials and local leaders and created a national media blitz.
More than 11,600 AAM members took action on the campaign.
“I thought it was a shame, but my primary goal was to try and convince Carrier executives to stay in Indiana,” Mitchell said. “The layoffs won’t begin until 2017 so maybe the move to Mexico can change.”
But for now, Mitchell will relax at his home in Merrillville, Ind. All bets are on Mitchell getting back to important steel advocacy and working to help the elderly and less fortunate.
“I know he will be deeply engaged because he’s committed to social and economic justice and he always has been,” Paul said. “I’m sure he will be continuing that and also I think for the first time in a long time, he will have some incredibly well-deserved time to himself, which I’m really happy about.
“We’ll miss him. We’ll miss him a lot.”