Mike Sullivan 1947-2024


Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan, a tireless advocate for steel and paper mill workers and proponent of universal health care, died March 2, 2024, of congestive heart failure.

Born Feb. 2, 1947, in Chicago, Michael Patrick Sullivan was the fourth of five children, and grew up poor on the south side of Chicago. He was six when his father died. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and suffered hearing loss working on aircraft carrier decks. 

After the service, he went to work at U.S. Steel in the Chicago area and trained to be a roll turner. He moved to Oregon in 1978 to take a job at Cascade Steel Rolling Mills in McMinnville, where he became a member of United Steel Workers Local 8378. He got active in the union, starting with the union safety committee, and within a few years was local union president. He also served as chair of the Marion-Polk-Yamhill Central Labor Council.

As a steel mill union and labor council leader, he was outspoken in politics and fought efforts to pass a sales tax in Oregon, on the grounds that it’s a regressive tax that falls heaviest on workers. He served as a delegate to the 1992 Democratic National Convention, but he took President Bill Clinton’s strong-arm passage of NAFTA in 1993 as a huge betrayal, and it soured him on Democrats. In 1996, he was part of an unsuccessful push to form a union-backed Labor Party. In 1999, he was one of hundreds of steelworkers protesting in Seattle against Clinton’s convening of a World Trade Organization summit.

He ran unsuccessfully for Yamhill County commissioner in 2004. The following year, he went to work for Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers as a lobbyist, where he remained until retiring in 2021. 

Never a politician, instead he brought a blue collar bluntness to his political work. He had strong convictions, spoke his mind, and could be gruff and even cantankerous at times. But he was also an unwavering advocate for “womb to tomb” universal health care, free higher education, and union democracy, wanting members to have a voice in their union. 

While on staff at the union, he earned a bachelor’s degree in labor history from the AFL-CIO’s National Labor College. For his course work, he did oral history interviews and wrote a paper about Local 8378’s 1975 strike at Cascade Steel Rolling Mills.

Sullivan passed his passion for unions and politics on to his three children. Both sons made their way into supporting roles in union-adjacent politics. Kevin Sullivan led Oregon Labor Candidate School, staffed the union-backed group Our Oregon, and now works on the political team for Oregon Education Association (OEA). Chad Sullivan is national field coordinator for the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions and previously worked for OEA, SEIU Local 503, and American Association of University Professors. And Sullivan’s daughter, Katie Shumway, was a teachers union steward before becoming a school principal.

Sullivan was preceded in death by his parents; his sister, Carol; brothers Roger and Tim; and his wife of 48 years, Gerry, who died last October. He’s survived by sister Patricia Strnad, daughter Katie Shumway, sons Chad and Kevin Sullivan, and grandchildren Aaron Shumway, Henry Sullivan, and Eleanor Sullivan.  

A celebration of life will be held 4 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at the SEIU Local 49 Union Hall, 3536 SE 26th Ave., Portland. RSVP at https://bit.ly/4cCq51s

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Healthcare for All Oregon.  


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