After 40 years in the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 80 — from an apprentice to foremen, business agent then business manager — Mark Saba has paid his dues as a leader in the industry. From his experience on shop floors, he naturally carries the point of view of a journeyman. But now as executive director of SMACNA Detroit, Saba is tasked with advancing the interests of the contractor.
“I retired from Local 80 on a Friday and went to work on a Monday for SMACNA Detroit,” says Saba, who stepped into the director role in 2017. As a local branch of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), Saba says his main priority has been to combat an industry-wide labor shortage.
“Every parent wants their kid to go to college. But every kid is not made for college,” says Saba. “We have a trade school that’s funded completely by the building trades of Local 80. There is no tax dollars in that school. That’s all our money. So you go to this school for four years and you come out making $60-$100,000 a year or you go to college where you may not have a job for two or three years, but you have $60-$100,000 of debt. So people are starting to see the light there and know maybe the trades are the way to go.”
What were the circumstances around your decision to choose the trades over college?
You know, everybody bounces around from job to job at 18, 19 years old. I took a semester at Macomb Community College (in Warren, Michigan) on duct layout and fabrication, and it really piqued my interest. I decided to take the Local 80 entrance exam to figure out do I want to go to college or do I want to go into the trades, and the trades turned out to be a good path for me. I started with E.W. Ensroth Company, served my whole apprenticeship there. We went on strike six months before I turned out as a journeyman. So I actually got my journeyman’s card while we were on strike. At the time, the pay was very decent and the outlook for the trades 40 years ago was a lot better than what they were in 2008-09 when we had that downturn, but now the trades are good again.
What made you get more involved in the political and policy advocacy side of the trades?
Well, of course construction takes a lot of toll on your body, the weather ups and downs. I played a lot of sports so my body started weakening a little bit. I also looked at where the trades were going at the time and how I thought I could help the trades get there. So the career path, the way the trades were working at that time, I saw that I could definitely be a factor in how we can do things better. And that’s why I ran.
When was that?
That was 2005 when I first ran for business agent for Local 80. It’s a three-year term, and I served a term and a half. Halfway through my second term, I was appointed to fill the business manager’s shoes who left abruptly. So I took over during probably the worst time that you could ever take over something.
Because that was leading into the 2008 downturn, right?
Right, but I will say this: I am proud of what I was able to accomplish in the years that I was there. I took a union that was buried in the sand, and when I handed the keys to the new guys we were probably the best we’ve been in years. And that’s not just me. That’s the team we put together. We worked together with Local 80 and with SMACNA and made things, as far as trustees go, make sense.
That’s what really took us back to where we had to be. Now as executive director of SMACNA Detroit, how has your priorities changed?
Now, I am on this side of the fence. And again things aren’t good, but I see from a contractor’s point of view how bad the downturn can be for someone like a contractor compared to someone that is a sheet metal worker. For the contractor that puts up his house as collateral, his business, the job market is going to make or break him. When you are in the field, if one company is gone bad, you have 40 or 50 other companies you can go to. So, I see that difference.
Was there a sense that you had “gone to the other side”?
I know a lot of the union guys didn’t appreciate it because they look at it maybe as more going to the other side. I never preached that — never as a business manager or as a SMACNA representative. I believe we are a team. If its 1970, a little bit different. Unions were a lot stronger. But read the paper today. Unions aren’t going up; they are going down. And if you’re not going to work together with your labor management partner, you’re not going to go anywhere. That’s my feeling. I pushed it with Local 80, and I hope that I can push it here.