Mike Syversrud retired May 31 after serving 23 years as the region’s elected business agent for Cement Masons Local 633. He represented Local 633 members across northern Minnesota, North Dakota, and seven counties in northern Wisconsin.
“I’ve worn numerous hats throughout the years,” said Syversrud, who also just retired as president of the Iron Range Building Trades Council. Over his career, Syversrud served as a trustee for the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council and also served in other leadership offices.
Syversrud, of Orr, is a third-generation cement finisher with 37 years as a member of the union. His dad was a 60-year member. “He didn’t ask me if I wanted to go to work. He said, ‘we’re going to work,’” Syversrud said.
“I’ve got three other brothers and they’re all union cement finishers,” he added. “All my brothers are retired — I’m the last one.” Other family members in the trade included two cousins and his father-in-law.
To his colleagues in the Labor Temple in Duluth, where he had an office on the first floor, Syversrud was a good friend and ally.
“Big Mike was the type of business representative all union members would want on their side,” said Don Smith, business manager of IBEW Local 242, whose office is directly across the hall from where Syversrud worked in the Labor Temple. “It was 10 years ago when I got to attend my first Duluth Building Trades meeting as a delegate, representing IBEW Local 242 as business manager, and who do I sit by? The biggest man in the room of course. Yes, Mike Syversrud! He introduced himself, congratulated me and said, ‘Good luck, buddy! You’re going to need it!’ Followed by this big smile and a chuckle.”
The meeting soon started and Smith said, laughing, that it didn’t take him long to realize that Syversrud also had the loudest voice in the room
To a young worker considering a career in the building trades, Syversrud offered this advice: “Take the opportunity if it’s given to you.” In addition to earning good wages, you’ll get a pension and health benefits. “You’re going to get old. You’re going to get sick… It will be here before you know.”
During Syversrud’s many years working with the building trades in northern Minnesota, he said the biggest change was the partnership between the union contractors and the unions.
“For the Iron Range, we’ve made leaps and bounds in the relationships we’ve had with the contractors,” he said. “We are a pretty close partnership.”
The contractors and the building trades meet quarterly and co-sponsor radio ads and billboard ads, Syversrud reported.
“We use the Paul Wellstone saying all the time — ‘when we all do better, we all do better,’” Syversrud said. “When our contractors are doing better, we do better. When they’re competitive, we’re on those jobs.”
Syversrud credited the quarterly meetings between the contractors and unions for what’s now a strong partnership, meetings that have now been taking place for years. Getting the contractors to sit at the table for regular lunch meetings wasn’t easy. “It took lots of work to get it going,” Syversrud said, adding, “it’s been a work in progress to get it where it’s at today.”
They meet over lunch, talk about current projects, talk about how to recruit, Syversrud said. “And we talk about labor issues… so it doesn’t spill out.”
Over time, Syversrud said, because of the relationships developed between contractors and unions over the lunch meetings, that’s meant more Project Labor Agreements and more work.
Syversrud was also a strong Union brother, Smith said. “He was always willing to help another business manager, representative, organizer or member. His knowledge and staunch approach while using his strong voice when handling a labor issue during a debate or during negotiations helped win more battles for all the Building Trades and their members then I can think of,” Smith said. “ He was not only a great colleague and champion of Labor, he was and remains a loyal friend whose passion to stand up for labor will never die and will always run thick in his blood and through his veins!”
Syversrud praised Local 633 business manager Dave Schutta, who is retiring July 31 after six years leading the local. “I begged and pleaded for Dave to take that job,” Syversrud said. “Dave went the extra mile to make sure our guys were taken care of good,” he said. “When he announced his retirement, I announced mine.”
Damon Hantz has replaced Syversrud as Cement Masons Local 633’s business agent for the region. Like Syversrud, he will office from the Duluth Labor Temple. Hantz will represent Local 633 members in Duluth, the Iron Range, and northwestern Wisconsin.
The new president for the Iron Range Building Trades Council is Jason Quiggen, business manager for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 589 based in Virginia, Minnesota.
Smith had some closing words for Syversrud: “Mike, thank you for all the years of support, representing your members, representing the Duluth Building Trades while serving as an officer of the Minnesota Building and Trades Council, being a genuine friend and definitely for having the BIGGEST set of Brass Balls in Building Trades Happy Retirement, buddy! It's time for you to enjoy some much needed family time and lots and lots of fishing!”
By Steve Share, Minneapolis Labor Review, with additional reporting from the Labor World.