Health, Safety & Environment Leader Mike Wright to Retire

After 44 years fighting for the well-being of working people on and off the job, including 37 years as the leader of the USW’s health, safety & environment department, Mike Wright is planning to retire.

Wright joined the USW staff in 1977 after training as an industrial engineer at Cornell University and as an MPH industrial hygienist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“It would be impossible to find a member of the USW, or any union, who hasn’t benefitted from the wide-ranging work Mike has done over the past 44 years,” said International President Tom Conway. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that his efforts have saved countless lives. He leaves behind a tremendous legacy of union building through his lifetime of dedication keeping workers safe and healthy on the job.” 

Throughout his career, Wright challenged the status quo and championed cooperative approaches to solving workplace health problems, spearheading the formation of  union-management committees, training initiatives and other collaborative efforts that have enhanced health and safety for all working people.

Peg Seminario, former director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO, has known Wright for 45 years and said that he has contributed more to advancing the safety and health of workers over that period than anyone else she has known.

“He is dedicated, determined, generous and fiercely loyal. He has been a great colleague to all in the safety and health movement, and a wonderful friend,” Seminario said. “Mike has dedicated his working life to improving the lives not only of USW members but workers around the globe.”

David LeGrande, former occupational safety and health director for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), worked closely with Wright for many years on the unions’ joint weeklong safety conferences that regularly attracted around 1,600 participants from rank-and-file workers, as well as management representatives, every 18 months for in-depth discussions and training sessions.

LeGrande credited Wright with building coalitions of labor leaders to fight together for improvements, and with helping to establish numerous Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and other state and local regulations to protect workers from asbestos, hazardous chemicals and other dangerous materials.

“Without Mike's leadership at the USW, these laws would not have been as comprehensive or, in some cases, even existed,” said LeGrande, who pointed out that Wright’s work touched millions who never belonged to a union.

“His efforts actually led to the improvement of working conditions for countless numbers of workers,” LeGrande said.

Amazing passion

Rank-and-file USW members also had high praise for Wright’s advocacy and deep knowledge, whether he was pushing for national standards for entire industries or communicating with members one on one.

Brad Greve, president of Local 105, which represents workers at Arconic’s Davenport Works, said Wright brought an impressive level of expertise to every safety issue.

“When you came to him with a problem, he had the ability to understand how it affected people day to day,” Greve said. “He could relate to people. The knowledge he had and the passion he had were amazing.”

Greve said he was among many who benefitted from health and safety conferences Mike organized over the years with the help of a world-class team that included Jim Frederick, whom President Joe Biden named to one of the top positions at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Fierce advocacy

Debbie Berkowitz, worker safety and health program director for the National Employment Law Project and former OSHA chief of staff during the Obama administration, called Wright a “fierce advocate” who fought tirelessly for tougher national workplace standards for materials like silica and beryllium, but who also took on smaller fights on behalf of individuals who were fired or faced retaliation for voicing safety concerns.

Wright made Berkowitz a better administrator, using his voice to ensure that her agency didn’t cut corners in its efforts to ensure safer workplaces, she said.

“That was the power of Mike's advocacy. He made change happen,” Berkowitz said.

Other colleagues echoed those sentiments.

Joseph Santarella, an attorney specializing in environmental enforcement, called Wright a “visionary leader” who helped make sure that the EPA enforced healthier Clean Air Act standards.

Meaningful reform

Over the years, Wright also investigated countless workplace incidents and followed them with calls for meaningful reform, the most infamous of which might have been the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak disaster in Bhopal, India.

That event, one of the world’s most deadly industrial incidents, killed more than 3,700 and injured more than 500,000. Wright’s advocacy and engagement following that event helped to prevent future chemical-related disasters around the world.

Over the years, Wright has served on numerous committees and advisory panels focusing on health, safety and environmental issues. Some of those bodies include the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, the Clean Air Act Advisory Committee of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Mine Health Research Advisory Committee, the National Research Council Committee on Industrial Competitiveness and Environmental Protection, the EPA Common Sense Initiative, the Iron and Steel Sector Federal Advisory Committee, the EPA’s Regulatory Negotiation Committee on a National Standard for Coke Oven Emissions and the Allegheny County Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee.

Wright has worked extensively with other labor, public health and educational organizations on international health, safety and environment issues, including the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. He has taught on the subject of safety and health in Zimbabwe, India, Brazil, Poland, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and Russia. 

In addition, he has been a member of the Board of Visitors of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and the Committee of Experts of the ILO.

Wright’s successor as the union’s HSE director will be longtime USW health, safety and environment advocate Steve Sallman, who said it was an honor to follow in Wright’s footsteps.

“We will miss Mike professionally and personally and we wish him all the best,” Sallman said.

“I’m fortunate to have served under Mike’s leadership and to have worked with so many other great activists during my time as a full-time health, safety and environment rep at USW Local 310L in Des Moines, Iowa and during my 17-years with the HSE department,” Sallman said. “I thank President Conway and the USW for their confidence to lead such an outstanding department. Together with the USW leadership, HSE staff and our members, I look forward to carrying on the great work of building our union around HSE and fighting for safer workplaces.”

Tributes from Colleagues

Mike Wright has worked closely with so many over his four-decade career, tributes poured in when colleagues past and present learned of his plans to retire. Here is a sampling of what Wright’s friends and colleagues had to say about him and his work.

“I have known Mike since 1979 and have many, many memories. Mike was part of the group that founded the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) in 1976. In 1979, I became their first paid staff person. Though Mike had left Boston to work for the USW, I quickly found that he was only a phone call away, and he always found time for that call.

“In 1988, MassCOSH grew to have a staff of five. It was time to unionize. We called Mike Wright and soon became USW members. That is how I became a Steelworker.

“Mike, who for a time served a dual role as the leader of the USW HSE Department and Education Department, was an important ally in the formation and implementation of the USW’s Women of Steel program. For several years in the 1990s, we served on the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH). One vivid memory I have of the first NACOSH meeting that I attended was that when Mike Wright spoke, everybody listened. Since then, I have had the privilege of working with Mike on numerous projects and committees, and one thing has never, ever changed over these decades - when Mike Wright speaks, everybody listens.” – Nancy Lessin, SOAR member, former senior staff, USW Tony Mazzocchi Center, former USW local president

“Mike is a titan. It doesn’t seem to matter what the topic is. We are always guaranteed a wealth of information, wisdom and insights. Mike is astonishingly well versed in so many areas.” – Marsha Love, program development manager in environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago

“Mike is a giant, historic figure in the labor movement's fight for workplace safety and health. His legacy is massive.” – Bill Kojola, who spent 15 years as an industrial hygienist with the AFL-CIO and  credited Wright with pioneering work on coke oven emissions, hazard communications, and ergonomic standards, as well as in numerous other areas

“Mike made the U.S. Chemical Safety Board a more effective organization. His insights about the agency’s achievements, foibles, and potential were effectively expressed with clarity and purpose, all in the interest of protecting USW members, their families, and communities. He has played a leading role among all national unions for protecting working people and for building the USW’s ongoing commitment to workplace and environmental safety and health.  I am very grateful to have benefited from his passion, wisdom, and leadership.” – Rick Engler, former member, U.S. Chemical Safety Board

“Last year, when we were both teaching at the Harvard Trade Union Program, I had a chance to see Mike at work, preparing for his workshop. Over drinks one evening, Mike was focused on his workshop taking place the next day. How much should he share examples from his experience?  What topics would be most useful?  Would they prefer break-out sessions or big discussions?  The drinks were not distracting Mike from the weight of the upcoming workshop on his shoulders. At last he made his decision about how to structure the workshop and was able to put down the pen.

“The next day, the students filed out of the HTUP class smiling and fulfilled. Another group of union activists ready to return to their union armed with tools and strategies to organize for safe, healthy working conditions.  And that was just a day in the life of Mike Wright.” – Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health

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