MANSFIELD -- Michael Patterson may not have realized it growing up, but leadership was in his blood.
After a quarter century with General Motors, the Mansfield resident became the first worker who transferred from Mansfield to be elected Chairman of the Shop Committee of the UAW Local 1005.
That happened in July. He represents approximately 1,000 UAW workers employed by the Parma plant.
“It’s an honor to represent (the union workers) again. It’s not a position I take lightly,” Patterson said. “My faith in Christ is the main motivator that allows me to treat people as I want to be treated, and do my best to represent them.
You gotta be dedicated, you gotta be committed and you have to like dealing with people and solving people’s issues.”
Patterson graduated from Madison High School in 1981 and earned a Bachelor of Science in Aviation Weather from the Ohio State University. He started his career with GM in 1995 as an apprentice with the Mansfield plant. He worked there until the plant’s closure, then began working at the Parma Metal Center in 2009.
A machine repairman by trade, Patterson was first elected committeeman in Mansfield, where he represented skilled trades workers in the plant at nationwide conventions. He held that position for six years. After transferring to Parma, he spent three years as a delegate to the UAW constitutional convention and three years as a skilled trades trainer.
Patterson’s exposure to union leadership came early. Every summer growing up, he went to visit his grandfather, Frederick E. Patterson Sr., who served as a committeeman for the union at GM’s electromotive plant in Chicago.
“When we were kids we would always go spend time with him. I didn’t realize we were there during their two-week shutdown in the summer,” he said. “I kind of followed in my grandfather's footsteps unknowingly.”
“My grandfather was active in politics and he always drug me and my brother along, even when we didn’t know what we were going to,” he recalled. “We were actually at one of the inauguration dinners for Harold Washington when he was elected the first black mayor of Chicago. My grandfather was on his election committee.”
As an adult, Patterson learned more about his grandfather’s career through papers and newspaper clippings he saved. Before moving to Chicago, Patterson Sr. trained as a welder in Middletown, Ohio and led efforts to found a black workers’ union at Armco Steel.
“That was way back in the '60s when they weren’t really allowing black men to train or even join a union. So he actually became a representative for the Black union workers,” Patterson said.
“I guess I take my work more seriously because I realize the things that those who came before us fought for and you don't take those gains that they made lightly. You make sure that you treat these things as something that was significant in the history of relationships between workers and their employer.”
Patterson also got a glimpse into the manufacturing industry from his father, who worked in quality assurance for the Department of Defense. His father, Frederick E. Patterson Jr., oversaw local government contracts with companies including Therm-O-Disc, Mansfield Tire and Ohio Brass.
“I remember him taking me and my brother through that plant, showing us what they did,” he said.
Like his grandfather, Patterson’s father also taught him by example, unknowingly preparing him for a path of leadership. As a Black supervisor, Patterson’s father sometimes experienced racism from his peers, but he always chose to treat others with dignity and respect.
“You gotta be tough because not everybody’s going to respond the way you think they would. You just got to be committed and know you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons. At the end of the day, you have to look yourself in the mirror. You don’t have to answer for others, they have to answer for themselves,” he said.
“My father always taught me that you treat people how you want to be treated regardless of their station in life or the color of their skin or their background because you only have your integrity. That will always speak for you,” he added.
Today, Patterson considers it a privilege to advocate on behalf of a diverse community of workers.
“The one common ground is that we’re here not only to do a good job, but to make a good living and support our families,” he said. “We all have a common goal here to make sure that this plant stays successful.”
Patterson resides in Mansfield with Mary, his wife of 34 years. They have three grown sons.