From the seventeenth floor of the Federal Courthouse building in Cleveland, Mike Coleman stood at the window looking out over the cityscape, thoughtful and intensely focused — having a moment. About three dozen colleagues and fellow Local 33 members were under his direction.
“The steward from the job site came up to me and said, ‘Mike, what are you thinking about?’” relates Coleman. He was 34 years old at the time with 15 years of experience, having climbed the ranks from journeyperson after completing his apprenticeship to supervisor.
Coleman told the union representative, “There is never going to be a more complicated project than this one. There’s never going to be one that’s tougher. I’m afraid the only thing that will change from job to job is the address.”
Coleman’s problem-solving nature and grit — he loves a challenge — are reasons why he knew he chose the right career path from when he began his very first project in 1985 at Sherwin Williams headquarters.
But what next?
“Did you ever think about representing us?” the steward asked. “You have such a passion. You treat us so good.”
Coleman broke his gaze and looked at the steward. It clicked. “From that moment on, I realized, that is what I wanted to do,” Coleman says. “Shortly after that, I ran for the executive board of Local 33.”
And this June, Coleman was named SMART General President, following more than 20 years of dedicated industry leadership at state and national levels, an opportunity he says is completely humbling.
A Collaborator at the Core
Coleman was 19 years old, working for a moving company, and admittedly “floundering” when a friend introduced him to the sheet metal industry. He didn’t know a thing about it. But there was an apprenticeship test coming up, and he decided to sign up.
“I scored high enough to get in, and, honestly, it was an uneventful entrance,” says Coleman, whose career on the industrial and HVAC side of the business has been anything but uneventful. He calls it a continuous learning experience and more rewarding than he could have imagined at the time.
“This industry has given me everything I have,” he says, reflecting on that time at the window and mentors over the years, particularly Richard Drinski at Coleman’s first job, Franck & Fric in Cleveland. Once completing his apprenticeship and becoming a journeyperson, he worked under Drinski.
“My father had passed away when I was young, so he almost became a second father to me,” Coleman relates. “He was a tough Polish guy and we hit it off right away. He really helped me develop my skills as a sheet metal worker and was a great influence.”
Coleman quickly evolved to serve in a similar helping-hand capacity to colleagues, earning a reputation as the guy you could count on for just about anything. “If someone was having an issue with family, I just wanted to be able to point them in the right direction to get the help they needed,” he explains. “Some days, I felt like a counselor, and I enjoyed that. I enjoy helping people solve their issues, whether it’s workforce-related or something else.”
In fact, recently, a Local 33 member who attended apprenticeship school with Coleman called him and left a voicemail, congratulating him on his General President post. He ended the message by saying, “Thank you for always being there for me.”
Coleman served his apprenticeship with Franck & Fric. Then, he took a position with T.H. Martin in Brooklyn, Ohio, where he spent the rest of his career until moving into a union role.
“I enjoyed all of the different challenges — there are so many aspects of the HVAC and industrial space to learn,” he says, pointing to what eventually led him to run for the Local 33 executive board representing members in Ohio and West Virginia. He wanted to expand his knowledge and work to continuously improve conditions for working families.
A couple of years after winning the Local 33 executive board seat, Coleman became the business representative. “We made sure employers had the workforce they needed and that members had representation in all facets,” he says, pointing to contract negotiations and personal career development.
During this time, Local 33 created programs that were “win-wins” for employers and members, Coleman says. One was related to earmarking dollars for health insurance and contributions by members on the architectural sheet metal and HVAC sides of the industry.
“When it came time to disperse money for our [insurance] contract, architectural members wanted to add contributions to health and welfare because their workweek is impacted by weather,” he explains. “Most of our local was on the HVAC side, and they are not subject to weather. They pretty much worked 40 hours a week, so they didn’t need added contributions into the health insurance fund.”
Coleman says, “I knew there was an answer to this problem.”
He coordinated with the union’s benefits administrator and attorneys and figured out a “redirect” solution that allowed members to choose whether to filter the funds into their health and welfare accounts for insurance or into an annuity.
This collaborative approach is how Coleman also brings together labor and management on a national scale at SMART. “We are interdependent,” he says. “Neither side is nearly as good without the other. We need each other.”
Coleman calls himself “a big partnership individual,” and that began early on at Local 33, where he was business manager from 2012 to 2019, before moving to Washington, D.C. to work as SMART’s director of business and management relations.
“I have said for years that 95 percent of the issues we face, we are lockstep in how they should be handled. The other 5 percent are inherent differences in management-labor relationships, and we can work through those as long as we are partners.”At the end of the day, Coleman says, “We always shake hands and respect each other.”
After he arrived in Washington, D.C., former General President Joe Sellers asked Coleman to become his assistant. “I learned a lot from General President Sellers: how to look at the industry as a whole, how to better coordinate work and to really take time to research,” he relates.
In the three and a half years leading up to Coleman’s move up to general president, he was on the front lines of challenges, victories and huge industry wins, including megaprojects funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Because of the pandemic, the public and private sectors were more tuned into the importance of indoor air quality. “We are working on this every day with locals to get legislation and some of that funding that was set aside granted so we can upgrade the HVAC systems in buildings, schools, nursing homes and other facilities,” Coleman says.
Coleman believes focusing on indoor air quality could potentially change the face of SMART and the industry for generations to come. However, the limelight has shifted for the time because of enormous construction projects and these jobsites’ workforce requirements.
“With the projects and legislation passed to date, there is roughly $600 billion in construction planned for the next few years, and these are numbers we’ve never seen before — even if you adjust for inflation,” Coleman says.
While assembling the workforce to complete major construction projects, Coleman says an equal challenge is protecting core projects that locals perform. “Those employers still need sheet metal workers for hospital projects, schools and other buildings,” he says.
He adds, “It’s a great problem to have, but it is a problem, make no mistake.”
An immediate goal for Coleman: “To make sure we do not fail when it comes to the surge of work,” he says. “We need a workforce that is ready, skilled, and will perform at the numbers that are needed.”
Long-term, he’ll continue to push initiatives to elevate membership benefits and become more diversified. There’s a recruiting piece, attracting fresh talent and showing the public all the career opportunities they can capture in the industry. And there’s a retention piece. “For this, we have to look at the challenges our members face. We’re looking at how we can provide affordable childcare. We have a lot of single parents and women coming into the trade, so we want to support their needs so they can grow a career.”
Coleman’s passion for the industry is contagious.
“I’m just a kid from Cleveland, and becoming the general president of an unbelievable organization like SMART — I don’t even know how to describe the feeling,” he says. “I’m very proud. And I want to give back everything I can to the industry.”